Teal is not a democracy!

  • Scope:
  • Culture and People

How to streamline decision making in a Teal organization

Here at Tooploox – and in smaller groups, when organizing events – we like to stay self-managed. While such a Teal strategy works well for us, there are many who have misguided views on what this actually involves 🙂

Many assume such a democracy will endure a lengthy decision-making process but that’s the secret: Teal really isn’t that democratic! It’s actually a little closer to a monarchy, but there are nonetheless various challenges and issues that need to be addressed when working in groups where everyone has input. Here’s how we solved this in one of our groups!

Teal? Not again…

“Those Teal-worshippers… they’re crazy about involving everyone in the decision making process. It’s just so time-consuming. All those hours, wasted. Who’s paying for that?”

I’m not sure how it came to be that Teal organizations are viewed as the ones that make all their decisions democratically (majority rules/voting) or by seeking consensus. Further, it’s assumed these organizations do it by engaging every single member of the team/company/community. Naturally, it seems like common sense to expect that this is a major waste of time, because it will take forever to make even the simplest decision!

From what I have experienced working with and in various teams, it doesn’t have to be like this 🙂 Let me tell you a story about a small but committed group of people that organize the Agile Wrocław community workshops and conferences and how we have shaped our decision making process.

A little bit of history

When we started organizing the Agile Wrocław community, there were just 3 of us as organizers. Decisions were pretty ‘easy’ to make. We could discuss any topic together and choose the best option. There were, of course, some differences in opinion and emotions involved – but nothing that we couldn’t handle. It was business as usual.

Then we started to grow. The first major challenge was to organize the first Agile on the Boat conference in 2017. We already had 6 (and soon 7) people within the core organizational group. Of course, we had a plan how to prepare the event and we split the work between us. However, every single decision was discussed with the whole group so that no one felt out of the loop. The process was time consuming and sometimes frustrating.

We even came up (later on) with ideas on how to ‘automate’ the voting process:

  • A proposal with voting options goes to a Slack channel
  • There is a 24 hour window for voting
  • If someone doesn’t vote within the time frame, too bad – no vote for him or her

This sped up the decision process a bit. Yet, it did not solve situations where someone missed the vote and/or had a strong opinion that differed from the majority, which often led to further discussions. We also had deadlocks when the votes were split 50/50 between options.

So now, for about a year, we have been experimenting with a different approach to decision making.

You pick a topic, you make decisions

What we did was introduce an advisory process. What’s this all about, you ask? It’s actually pretty straight-forward:

First, anyone in our group can pick a topic/task to handle. It can be something like:

  • Organizing materials for the conference
  • The process for selecting trainers
  • Booking a place for the next workshop
  • Creating a post on FB
  • Handling the new logo for Agile Wrocław
  • Establishing cooperation with a profit-oriented organization

So you’ve picked a topic? Great! Now you can make any binding decisions on that matter, as long as you consult it with the people most interested in it (or those who have the most experience). You can decide on the form of the decision process (voting, brainstorming, etc.) but the final decision is YOURS to make. Other people are only ADVISORS – you can make a different decision than the ‘majority’, for example.

You also have the “just get it done” sticker. Your responsibility is to complete the topic/task or pass it to someone else if you are unable to do it. If you fail to do so, you will receive appropriate feedback 🙂

How does this work in practice? It wasn’t easy in the beginning, I can assure you 🙂

Some members of Agile Wrocław, especially those that were part of the organization from the beginning, had a hard time giving up ‘full decision power’ to other members. It was difficult for us to accept that these decisions would not always be as good as those we would have made ourselves. We also had to accept that this is not a bad thing.

Likewise, the ‘new members’ did not always have the courage to make these decisions. They didn’t know exactly what they could or could not do on their own and what would happen if they made a ‘wrong’ decision.

This is what helped us to overcome these initial problems:

  • When in doubt, go back to our organization’s mission: “To allow people to become better than they were before”.
  • Observe how other members act autonomously.

You might say that we finally dared to trust each other. We observed that our colleagues also had the well-being of our organization in mind and understood the mission 🙂

Ability to make decisions + scope of responsibility = your role in a team

After some time spent working together as the organisational team, we got to know each other well enough to pick certain areas for ourselves to work on. For example, I feel responsible for the content of our workshops and conferences, alongside handling communication with the trainers that deliver this content. Łukasz, on the other hand, feels great creating the vision and long-term strategy for the development of our community.

These areas were not ‘assigned’. They naturally evolved as a reflection of our strengths and the tasks we actually perform best. Such positions (or roles) might even correspond to the ‘Group Roles’ model described by M. Belbin – but we have never verified it.

The key to effective collaboration within our team was growing awareness of the existing scopes of responsibility and mutual acceptance in the process of mapping team members to any respective sphere. This way, if someone picks a task from outside of his or her ‘usual’ expertise, he or she knows who to involve in the advisory process.

“Well, that’s great. But it won’t work for us.”

I had a hunch that you might say that 🙂 I will try to address the basic challenges of introducing this decision model.

“What If There Are No People Actually Volunteering To Take Tasks?”

First, I would check if the people you work with actually form a team. To check this, just ask them 2 simple questions:

  • What is the common mission (or goal) of the team?
  • What are our common rules of cooperation within and outside of the team?

If they cannot answer either of these questions, start with building/finding a team for what you actually want to accomplish.

Second, not everyone will volunteer for a task openly, in front of the whole team. Some people will want to ‘join in’ later, take (or be assigned) some tasks with a smaller scope of responsibility and just ‘do it’ – and they will most probably do it really well! A team consisting purely of proactive ‘People of Action’ will not be very effective. Along with visionaries, leaders and coordinators, we also need those who criticize, plan and carefully execute.

Third, it might just be the case that you haven’t got all the skills in your team to cover all the vital areas of your work. This happened to us early on in the Agile Wrocław team. Filip, Łukasz and me were not very good at organizing, keeping track of our tasks and moderating our discussions – so basically we had a problem with facilitation and creating/executing short-term plans. That’s why the first person that we invited to our team – Dorota – is known for her great facilitation skills 🙂

“People Don’t Have All The Information/Knowledge/Experience That I Have, So How Can They Make Equally Good Decisions?”

This is pretty simple, really 🙂 Make sure that other people in your team have access to all the information needed to make good decisions (within their scope, at least). Please note that this is not the same as sending everything to everyone all the time – just make the information available for people to grab it ‘just-in-time’.

Secondly, people will learn to make better decisions, especially when they know that they can (or initially even must) involve you in the advisory process. What’s more, they will receive feedback from you, won’t they? 🙂

The key here is to dare to trust somebody and evaluate the actions of such a person, to realize that they also want what’s best for the organization.

“But I Don’t Want To Have People Wasting Their Time Reading Unnecessary Information And Discussing All The Topics. After All, Somebody Has To Do The Actual Work And Deliver Products To Our Customers.”

Let’s go back to my initial thesis: Teal is not a democracy. Thanks to our advisory process, we are able to avoid unnecessary discussions. As for transparency and the availability of information, I have never seen teams that addictively track, day by day, the company’s financial results, another team’s Jira board or even recruitment statistics. It is important to give people access to this information so that they don’t have to waste time looking for it when they need to make better decisions.

If that still doesn’t convince you, I suggest you have a look at your internal values and the readiness to trust others 🙂

“It Might Work In One Small Non-Profit Agile Wrocław Team, But There’s No Way It Will Scale To Larger, Commercial Organizations [50, 100, 1,000 People, Or More].”

Scaling indeed poses a larger challenge. This is exactly what we currently deal with at Tooploox – a company (of around 120 people) that I work for. We’ve already experimented with a number of methods and tools:

  • Having Process Owners (like Allocation Process Owner) – as described in “Doktryna Jakości” by A. Blikle.
  • Describing circles and areas similar to Holacracy (currently based on competences like iOS, Android, Marketing, Designers, Culture&People, PMO, etc.). This might lead to:
    • Describing how the advisory process works within these sectors (and on the company-wide level).
    • Defining some additional roles, again inspired by the Holacracy framework (like lead link or rep link) -> Thanks for the inspiration, Paweł!
    • Handling input/output to other areas and groups within the company
  • Creating strategic goals and aligning the whole company with them (similar to the Hoshin Kanri method)
  • Having drivers for company-wide tactical goals
  • Making various company-related available within the company (financial metrics, recruitment, allocation, etc.)

One thing is certain – there are no ‘out-of-the-box’ solutions here – yet ;). We will iteratively evolve and check what is working for us.

As you can see, this strategy does save us time, as well as spares us the occasional heated discussions come decision-making time. We can discuss more our road to Teal in the future and how we deal with other challenges like responsibility, cooperation and leadership.

This post is based on a previous post on the author’s blog. If you can read Polish, feel free to read it here.

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