Meet our newest contributor Peter Brownell, whose work lies at the intersection of technical and organizational development. We think you’ll enjoy his refreshingly personal and frank reflections on his first stumbling steps towards a new way of working in organizations (originally published on The-Organization.com).
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“Every time we gather becomes a model of the future we want to create.” — Peter Block
Each interaction is a mirror of the organisation we are part of. The way we run every meeting actively creates the system within which we operate. To build an organisation without fixed hierarchies, we start with each gathering, and we model the future, one tiny step at a time.
Participatory action research community
I have always been interested in self-organising groups. I wrote my first manifesto that companies should be non-hierarchical in 1997, and managed to get the software company I worked with to allow its programming division to choose their own salaries in 1999 — and yet, I’ve never felt that I have really succeeded in not being the one in charge. After another year experimenting with different self-organising tools, now at my own company, I saw Bjorn Uldall’s article on Enlivening Edge about his action research project. I jumped at the chance to get some insight.
The Enlivening Edge participatory action research community (PARC) project invited people to explore ideas and practices like the ones outlined in Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organisations. Using an Action Research process, a collection of amazing people shared their understandings through a set of online meetings and writing. It took literally minutes to find some strikingly obvious blind-spots in my approach. A blindness that was not just affecting my professional life, but my personal life too.
The PARC process asks each participant to engage on their own directed enquiry and share the results. The enquiry begins as a question. This was mine:
“How do I recognise and facilitate the personal changes required for an individual to become an effective member of a decentralised team?”
I began my enquiry with the understanding that the journey towards self-organisation was one of self-development for everyone involved. I believed that the path involved developing skills, in particular the ability of each member of the organisation to be able to manage their own actions and accept the level of responsibility required to do so.
Over the course of a year I had been trying to find ways to encourage my team to self-organise. We created roles, adopted structured meeting formats, had many discussions. We made progress, but nothing significant changed. Over the course of this work I found that the problem was not them… it was me.
Although we were creating more roles and a more devolved structure, I was always the one leading the meetings. I was always doing the facilitating. I was always jumping in to push for decisions when things slowed down. I was not acting in a way that allowed anyone else to feel that they were equal. I never created a space where people could really feel that they had authority, I simply re-organised what was there.
The Structure of Belonging
I have developed a rather obsessive book habit over the last few years, working to assemble a library to assist me in my re-education on organisation and community. Throughout our PARC I collected the book recommendations and attempted to quickly assimilate as much knowledge as possible.
One of the most significant influences on my thinking was Peter Block’s “Community / The structure of belonging”. After a few months, I had yet to complete the book because I read the first few chapters so many times. I also hit one profound phrase that altered my understanding and changed my approach to my work — and suddenly allowed me to see what had been getting in my way: “Every time we gather becomes a model of the future we want to create.”
Once I started to see each meeting as a model of the organisation, I was able to get immediate visibility on how I was not allowing others to take charge. I was always using my authority to move things on, to influence, to get a conclusion. Stepping back in the moment is hard, but it’s much easier to get people to fix a meeting than it is to fix a company.
In combination with the insight that I was not modelling the group context I needed, I was also not modelling the personal authenticity required to achieve my goals. I was simply not sincere or direct in my interactions, and never provided anyone in my life, let alone my work, with clear and honest feedback.
I have always been a negotiator, always feeling that to build a collaborative enterprise (or relationship), I should be willing to compromise, to find a better way next time, and so I continuously tempered my emotional feedback. This may perhaps have been a good strategy if I was actually removing any personal need or emotion — but I was not. I was simply trying to be nice, and my lack of honesty was getting in the way of any chance of true collaboration.
This lack of openness has lead to much stress within my work and personal life. I was never clear with my business partner about just how frustrated I was with our work. I would privately fume, but always communicate only a small portion of my reality to avoid unnecessary stresses. I undermined my personal life in just the same way.
While embarking on this work, I was also reaching an extremely low point in my relationship of ten years. Things simply were not working, and I was reaching a crisis. One evening, in trying once again to be open with my partner, she once again accused me of being insincere — just as I thought I was being open and honest. However, my “honesty” was still just a proposal to a compromise, a possible “solution” — it was not an authentic communication of my fear and doubt.
The breakthrough took place when she managed to ask the right question. She kept enquiring and pushed me to the point where I understood that I needed to stop being in charge. What was required was not another attempt for me to suggest a way to work around the problem. I simply needed to be an equal and to give her a chance to work with me. Everything changed.
I realised that to truly collaborate, we have to lay all our cards on the table. If we keep some tricks for later, we have not placed ourselves in a situation where we trust each other as equals. I also realised how transparent my in-authenticity was. Everyone could see it.
That was a bit of a bummer.
A bit of a shock awakening for my ego.
I thought my external image was intact, but humans happen to be very good at sensing insincerity.
After a good many tears, I got through and started to make changes. I am still learning to shift myself out of this pattern and expect that to take many years, but the results were significant and immediate. Just a little practice and it got much easier.
Making change possible
My lack of authenticity had been crippling. It prevented me from managing my own emotions effectively, which in turn actively limited my ability to see possible futures. Avoiding being honest meant that I was not dealing with smaller feelings, which made problems bigger than they needed to be, and obvious solutions harder to find.
During the course of our PARC, I kept sharing my thoughts as often as possible, using our online chat like a blog. The careful attention and questioning by members of the project prodded and poked at my understanding of my situation. The value of an external viewpoint on my state opened my eyes and made me consider things I simply didn’t let myself see as an option. Ria suggested that perhaps I needed to start over, that my company needed to be reformed to change the power dynamic. The next morning, I knew she was right.
I fretted for a day or two on the idea that I could start again. Then I just sat down and wrote the letter that said I needed to go my own way. After ten years in business together, I needed to tell my business partner that it was time for a change. In the end it was rather easy and my finger never really hesitated over the send button — I had said what needed to be said.
Robert and I met the next morning, and everything flowed. My honesty had helped him understand our dynamic and allowed him to move on too. The process was helped by us reaching the end of a two year contract, and it was time to restructure our team anyway. My stepping away actually made many decisions much easier.
The superman complex
Combining the learning about honesty and the importance of every interaction has lead me to begin to address the pattern that emerges as a combination of the two: The idea that you can be some kind of superhuman who can be in charge, have all the answers and never really feel down.
I have always tried to have all the answers. I have wanted to be good at everything. I still do. However being honest, expressing that all important fear and doubt, tends to undermine these super hero facades. As does modelling interactions as an equally human member of a team.
I am slowly developing my humanness. Learning to accept that I don’t have to have the answers, that I don’t need to prove to anyone that I am good at what I do. I saw this need to share my failings in all areas of my life, and in that process I came to see just how much more I could achieve if, instead of feeling that I had to find the answers, I could create real collaborative opportunities by sharing the underlying questions.
The power of the question
My involvement in the Enlivening Edge PARC was also my first engagement with professional coaching. My superhuman complex had always lead me to undervalue what coaching could achieve. However, the immediate results I saw in, not just my understanding, but in my life and work opened my eyes. Every book I was now reading was also pushing me to seriously start to engage with questions rather than answers.
The importance of valuing questions over answers is another very important piece of the puzzle. When the question is valued, we create a relationship that shares power. When the answer is paramount the power dynamic is completely different. The cultural differences between the two focusses are profound — and I feel that I have only seen the tip of the iceberg.
By understanding how honest communication works, and removing myself as a source of answers in my meetings, I now understand the power of asking the right questions. (I still fall into the answer trap very often, but at least I am aware of it a little more.) The right questions allow everyone to find their own truth — and when they can do that, they can do the personal development needed to become self- organising.
It’s me that has to change
It did not take me long to realise that the question I had asked at the beginning of my enquiry was wrong. I think Bjorn pointed it out in our very first call.
The question that was important for me to answer in this process was:
“How do I recognise and facilitate the personal changes required for me to become part of an effective decentralised team?”
Over the course of this research, I essentially started again. I am now starting a new company and attempting to model it with each interaction. It’s hard. On days where I am suboptimal, the need to be present and open is very difficult. The awareness that each moment matters however means that I pay attention to so many things that would have been ignored six months ago.
Taking the advice of others in the PARC, I have begun my process of forming the new team by spending time really focusing on what it was that we wanted to achieve in our lives, diving deep into conversations about values and meaning. These conversations have revealed something interesting. Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organisations highlights self-development as the centrepiece of organizations that are functioning at a higher level of consciousness, and when you have these conversations then that is exactly what happens. The conversation creates the future.
In the six months since taking part in the PARC, so much of my life has changed. I owe a debt of gratitude to those who participated with me, and asked me all those difficult questions. I’ve learned so much about my relationships, faced childhood fears and been able to see how my management style was often just hiding my issues with self-esteem. The whole self is not something we have ever been encouraged to reveal anywhere, definitely not at work.
Being able to create an organisation will require a style of leadership that operates in a way so different to that which I have experienced before. The ability to model a way of being that can lead without force or domination, that accepts the leadership of others and can create an environment for whole selves will not be easy.
But, I know that I don’t have to do it alone, I know that I can make mistakes and that I just have to keep asking the right questions.
Many of my ideas were influenced by Peter Block’s book “Community, The Structure Of Belonging”, introduced to me by Ben Roberts.
Louisa pushed me hardest of all. And still does.