How to Facilitate a Transition from Power Hierarchy to Purpose Hierarchy – with Heleen Kuiper
‘Flattening the room’ is a popular phrase in the world of facilitation – and with good reason. Indeed, without equity, parity, and openness, a workshop or meeting cannot succeed to its fullest potential.
There are many different ways to flatten a room, but not many facilitators pursue such a rigorous deconstruction of hierarchy as proponents of holacracy, including Heleen Kuiper.
But what is holacracy and how does Heleen help organisations transition from power to purpose in their hierarchies?
Myriam wanted to explore the depth and detail of holacracy as a complement to, and vessel of, facilitation, so she brought Heleen onto the Workshops Work podcast for a fascinating dissection of this method.
What is holacracy?
Before diving into the finer details of this method, it is worth explaining exactly what it means!
“Holacracy was invented to change the power structure in organisations,” explained Heleen, to help them “become a self-managing organisation where there’s no power hierarchy but a purpose hierarchy.”
“When you facilitate holacratic meetings, it’s about work that needs to be done… It’s not about feeling good… You’re hardly ever talking about ‘how do you feel?’, ‘do you feel heard’, and ‘does this really help you?’”
In a holacratic system, the responsibility of each person’s feelings lies solely with them. Whilst this seems counter to the way many facilitators work, the overarching purpose is the same – to achieve an output for the client that works for their employees too.
Technical meetings in holacracy
Holacratic meetings generally take one of two forms – technical and governance.
Technical meetings centre on assigning people roles and establishing their accountabilities.
“People can have 10 or 15 roles” none of which need to necessarily be tied to the same discipline. “You can have a role in operations but you also have a role in onboarding new people and you may have a role in organising the Christmas party.”
“It’s not free roles,” noted Heleen. “It’s really clear – I am the social media planner or I am the customer dialogue expert.” Holacratic roles are “very specific… with a number of accountabilities.”
Your roles and their accountabilities are “what people can expect from you.” “From there, it’s your business to make sure that the accountabilities of your roles are executed as well as possible.”
Governance meetings in holacracy
Whereas technical meetings exist to establish purpose, assign people to roles, and check on their progress, governance meetings exist to “look at the way we are organised now – is that the most helpful or would it be helpful to make adjustments to the way we are organised?”
This could be “adjustments to roles or how you group roles together”, but whatever the change is that is being discussed, Heleen was eager to stress that “there is a very clear process of how you can make all kinds of small reorganisations so that you don’t need to make big reorganisations.”
Inevitably, if in a meeting where traditional power structures are challenged – directly to those at the top of those systems – there can be some conflict and pushback. But, in a structure that asks participants “to behave as adults” and state their needs and reactions clearly, conflict takes on a different form.
What do you need?
A simple question, but one that you will hear a lot in holacratic meetings.
Both Heleen and Myriam remarked that, often when people raise an issue in a meeting, they aren’t looking for a solution. They might be looking to vent, to assert themselves, or countless other unspoken acts.
But holacracy is purpose driven. “If you need something, ask for it!”, scoffed Heleen. “If you’re not going to ask for it, we will not jump in and say ‘try this’, we will just leave it to you.”
“The moment someone asks you: ‘what do you need?’ – you are moved from a victim perspective to a creative perspective. It is amazing how quickly that happens.”
Conflict and uncertainty in holacracy
Myriam admitted that she “can think of so many conflicts that can arise when you try to implement such a new way of collaboration.” Indeed, in dismantling the traditional power hierarchies, there are inevitably some conflicts that arise.
One of the most remarkable problems that Heleen encounters comes when senior manager start to see fewer responsibilities – people ‘below’ them in the traditional hierarchy assume full responsibility for certain tasks and often senior managers are left with a surprisingly short list of responsibilities.
“Often, when you really write down the roles of management, it’s a lot of administrative stuff. It’s not leadership.” Heleen noted that “when we start to write it down, it can be painful… It turns out you are just doing the administration of the team!”
Ultimately, holacracy removes the personal from the professional. It shifts people into thinking only about roles and responsibilities, removing points of friction by being explicit about what everyone expects from their colleagues.
It may not be comfortable to shift from a power hierarchy to a purpose hierarchy, but it is effective.
Will you adopt holacratic methods in your facilitation?
Understandably, holacracy will not work for every facilitator or organisation.
That is not to say that we cannot take elements from holacracy and apply them to our practice, though.
Whether it is the importance of roles and purpose, the need for direct communication, or the reimagining of power structures, holacracy shows us new ways of seeing organisations and collaboration.
And I’m sure we can agree, new perspectives can be hugely powerful. If you aren’t ready to try such bold methods, then… What do you need?
You can listen to the show on your favourite podcast player, searching for “Workshops Work” or stream the episodes on www.workshops.work.
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