From Principles To Practices: A Case Study Of Bringing Self-Management To Life
If you follow Corporate Rebels, you have heard a lot about the problems with the old ways of working. Poorly designed organizations lead to frustration, boredom, and disengagement. Bureaucracy and inertia crush innovation and sap motivation. It’s clear that, if we’re going to get things done and have some fun too, some big changes are in order.
And if you’ve been paying attention, you know that principles like purpose, empowerment, experimentation and transparency offer great promise in driving this much-needed change. But the principles alone are not enough.
Change is the only constant
Namasté Solar is a 13-year-old employee-owned cooperative headquartered in Colorado, USA. The company is a Certified B Corp with a mission to “propagate the responsible use of solar energy, pioneer conscientious business practices, and create holistic wealth for ourselves and our community.” Namasté Solar has long embraced many of the same principles we associate with self-management:
Distributed Leadership - We value the unique gifts and perspectives that each individual contributes to our company; no one of us is as smart as all of us. Democratic Decision-making: Major decisions are made on a one-person, one-vote basis. Extreme Transparency: We practice open book management and hold open meetings.
The company had a record year in 2016 by every measure. They were growing fast, profitable, and having exactly the social and environmental impacts they sought to make. But for context, you have to understand that residential and commercial solar businesses (and Namaste Solar is both) have long operated in a volatile, uncertain, and complex business and political environment.
In fact, folks in the industry have a name for it - they call it “the solarcoaster.” Tax incentives come and go at the state and federal levels. Utilities sometimes encourage solar with rebates, but their programs vary state to state and year to year. Change is the only constant.
So by mid-2017, some of the co-owners of this employee-owned company began asking questions. In the face of this “solarcoaster,” how can we make good decisions more quickly? How can we encourage more innovation and experimentation? How can we retain our unique character and avoid unnecessary hierarchy and bureaucracy as we scale up?
"Is it safe to try?"
In September 2017, the CEO of Namasté Solar, Jason Sharpe, had 13 direct reports; although here they are called “supports,” because the company draws their org chart upside down, with the CEO at the bottom. He was finding it impossible to spend quality time with all of them, and he had a sense that sometimes they were relying on him for decisions they could, and should, be making themselves. When he asked folks around the company about role clarity, decision authority and decision-making processes, he saw a lot of shrugged shoulders and heard too much uncertainty.
And so Jason started asking more questions. What if we were to form five “circles” across the company, with each having a representative to the “company circle?” Two of those circles had obvious leaders from the existing org chart, but three did not. What if those circles elected their representatives to the company circle? Would that be “safe to try?”
With consent from key leaders, the company launched an experiment in self-management. They decided to use an article by Alison Randel as a guide to charter the circles, each with a clear purpose. Each circle further clarified roles, goals, measures, practices and guardrails. With support from IT they began using Microsoft Teams to ‘work out loud’ in their circles, each posting their charter and KPIs and meeting notes (and more) for all to see.
While retaining a democratic process for certain key decisions with company-wide impact, they adopted consent-based decision-making for many governance and all tactical decisions. They learned to use the advice process and Integrative Decision Making as tools for distributing authority and generating more concurrent experiments across the organization.
Experiment and iterate
One challenge that surfaced in many of the circles had to do with moving beyond the notion that every decision has to be correct, or even nearly perfect. Through conversation and practice, Namastaliens (as they call themselves) established an experiment-and-iterate mindset.
Another aspect of self-management that has generated quite a bit of discussion is how to define accountability. This came up as the circles established their KPIs, which triggered some fear of being blamed when goals are missed. In one circle, the question was asked this way: “If you had no CEO, no manager, what metrics would you use to help guide you? What metrics would you use if no one else cared? What would you and your team want to know about?”
And from that, consensus has emerged that accountability should be about “how we’ll know if we’re making progress toward our objectives, working out loud, tapping our collective intelligence, and working together to support each other in making progress.” This approach enhances psychological safety, which frees people to practice greater creativity and collaboration.
It takes repeated practice over time to adopt this way of working, not falling back into the old ways. From a systems perspective, Namasté Solar has ‘disintegrated,’ and in that uncomfortable phase it can be tempting to go back to the old behaviors. But there is an awareness that this new way of working is never “done,” so ‘reintegrating’ as a higher-functioning system has to mean turning ‘sense and respond’ practices into new habits that help the company make progress toward its objectives.
Riding the solarcoaster
Self-management and its “safe to try” experimentation may not yet feel completely safe to everyone at Namasté Solar. One of the next big milestones will be to conduct retrospectives on some of the initial decisions (experiments), and to apply what has been learned. Completing that loop will reinforce the notion that it’s not necessary to always have perfect plans or answers to make progress toward your purpose.
How can we make good decisions more quickly? How can we encourage more innovation and experimentation? How can we retain our unique character and avoid unnecessary hierarchy and bureaucracy as we scale up?
And that it might actually be possible to ride the solarcoaster and grow efficiently while also continuing to embrace principles like distributed leadership and extreme transparency. The co-owners at Namasté Solar draw inspiration for this organizational growth process from part of their mission: to be a company that, by pioneering conscientious business practices, is helping transform the way business is done.
Pete Dignan spent the last 20 years leading two Certified B Corps and a nonprofit. He founded Ever Better in 2017. Brett Astor is the Marketing Director at Namasté Solar, where he applies his background in psychology and mindfulness training to craft compelling narratives about solar energy and conscientious business practices.
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The idea of self-management tends to be received with both interest and cynicism. Amongst the varied reactions, there is one recurring doubt that I hear time and time again. That doubt is deep. That doubt, is trust.