When I speak to people about being a democratic organization, inevitably at some point the question comes, “how do you get anything done when everyone has a say in everything?” This is one of the myths of what a democratic organization is and how it functions. The dreaded scenario that gets conjured up is some variety of complete and utter chaos, with everyone speaking at once and nothing actually happening. This is the fear of democracy. This fear is based on past experiences of the simplistic application of democracy: trying to include everyone in everything. This approach ends in “inclusion paralysis”. The alternative simplistic option is to dismiss involvement completely. Unfortunately, business and organizations have spent several decades trying the second option and the result has been decreased productivity, missed innovation, and human beings showing up to work half present and holding back most of their skills, capabilities, and intelligence for fear it would not be heard anyway.
Many organizations find themselves at this impasse: we know engagement and inclusion is important (we finally got that message – see how many Heads of Engagement have popped up in the last few years?) AND yet, we still don’t know exactly how to do it AND simultaneously get anything done.
This is precisely where teams, businesses and organizations can gain a collective organizational edge. This is in fact on the edge of our evolving collective capability in organizations. Innovation is happening out of necessity. Creative approaches to organizational design, decision-making, collaboration, and the welcoming back of appropriate hierarchy enter as alternatives to the status quo of autocratic decision-making.
But where is the starting line to move beyond the stuckness? Looking to 2 of the 10 principles of organizational democracy according to WorldBlu (www.worldblu.com) gives us a clue: purpose and transparency.
Firstly, ensuring clarity on the overall purpose of the team or organization. Exploring questions like:
:: What is our unique role in the economy and society? / what is our team’s unique role in our organization?
:: What would the world/our customers lose if we didn’t exist?
:: Why do we care about this? (Individually and collectively). (I find it helps to ask this question repeatedly until the deepest motivations are discovered.)
And secondly, gaining clarity on the purpose of greater inclusion. Answering questions (before deciding who to include) like:
:: What are we trying to achieve here?
:: Why are we doing what we are doing?
This is more than just defining an objective. It is in fact defining the intrinsic motivation of a group. Understanding that yes, we have this goal, and we are driven by the fact that together we know why we have this goal, begins to tell us ‘for the sake of what’ do we include vs. an automatic, reactive, or fear-based response to include everyone all the time.
So, to work, Involvement must be purpose-driven. It must also provide transparency of this purpose. It cannot either be done to “look good” nor out of a blind need to involve everyone. It must also be clear to people when, where and how their voices can be heard. While it is not rocket science, it does take a certain calculus to determine who to involve, how, for what reason. When your reasoning is clear, transparent and shared, and people understand how they will be involved, trust begins to develop, allowing the paralysis starts to shift. We begin to see trust develop which allows for delegated decision making to the appropriate levels, reintegrating hierarchy, with the trust that each perspective will be heard. From this point, the momentum that is built and the innovation available far outweigh the inclusion investment.
Further questions to reconsider:
- Am I/are we being driven by fear or purpose in who and how we involve?
- Once we have come to a shared purpose, how can we work to ensure trust continues to build within the team and avoid a relapse into old habits?
- Is our decision-making process clear and transparent? Do we know what decisions are taken where and how? Have we defined who is going to make specific types of decisions, and for each of these types, what will that process look like?
Remember though, this is only the first step in a journey to develop yourself and your team, and we would invite you to connect with Cari to explore what this journey would look like in your context.