An introduction to 'ecolocracy' - pt.1

| 8th March 2019
People who work for organisations that aim to protect nature, can work like nature.

x

Ecolocracy is a method of translating the ‘philosophy of need’ into a effective, ethical practice. It is a proposed management system developed through dialectical materialism and systems thinking. It has been designed for organisations that want to effect change in the world, while simultaneously “being the change you want to see in the world”.

Read, Why we need 'ecolocracy'

Read, An introduction to 'ecolocracy' - pt.2

Read the On The Nature of Change (OTNOC) series

Ecolocracy proposes an organisational structure and method of working based on the structure of an open, living system. It is an iteration of Holacracy which ensures that every organisation understands its impact on its environment - both social and ecological - and conscious facilitates regeneration.

The fundamental difference between ecolocracy and traditional organisational structures is needs define the operations and governance of the organisation. The team consciously identifies and meets needs - and the individual within the team has her needs met so they can participate fully within the team.

Explanation

The aim of ecolocracy is to allow each of its members to be a free, self-actualised member of an association of producers working towards a sustainable and ethical society. The individual is free to define and meet her own needs, and this freedom is only limited by the needs of others. The ecolocracy governance structure facilitates a negotiation between individuals to meet their own needs in the context of the needs of others.

The authority to act is distributed across the roles in the team. The method is based on trust in the ability of the individuals who energise the roles - to design, develop and implement the purpose of the organisation. It therefore aims to do away with traditional - often patriarchal - hierarchy, centralised power and disruptive conflict.

The distillation of flowers can create essential oils - a more aromatically potent but reduced form. The following three articles set out an ‘essential oil’ of ecolocracy. This reduction contains the minimum information required to adopt the practice into any group of people working together towards a single aim, or purpose. This distillation provides clarity.

Ecolocracy is a revised iteration of Holacracy. The reduced down version is useful for members of a team who either do not have time - or are not yet convinced to dedicate the time needed - to read Brian J Robertson’s book Holacracy: The Revolutionary Management System That Abolishes Hierarchy, or the full Holacracy constitution.

Like essential oils, this distillation should be used with some caution. The process of extraction has removed the ego and the logos: the persuasive arguments, the explanation and the examples from the original text. It is highly recommended that anyone interested in ecolocracy, or decentered organisational management, should read Holacracy.

Needs

The differences between Holacracy and ecolocracy are few and easily understood, but also essential. Three changes to the ‘genetic code’ of Holacracy have been made to produce this new, conscious, form.

The first change is at the meta level - the purpose of the organisation must be to meet (human) needs, including the need for a sustainable natural environment. This ensures that ecolocracy run organisations put the philosophy of need into practice.

The second is at the second level of operations and introduces emergence - or play - to the management system. Meetings are held specifically to inculcate the creativity of collaboration, an “associated intelligence”. The third is at the micro level: no single policy can be adopted that does not meet the needs of the proposer - and society, and nature. The actions, or tasks taken, cannot produce a net harm.

In this article, we look at how the organisation - or system - functions with ecolocracy. We begin with the whole system. This means examining how the purpose of the organisation is derived. We discuss how the purpose is then actualised through a strategy. The strategy is then broken down into projects and tasks.

We then look at each part of the system - the individual. We see how tasks are grouped together into projects. We discuss how tasks and projects are delegated to roles (rather than individuals).

We look at how team members are then appointed to one or more roles. Finally, we look at how individuals come together in tactical meetings to discuss how they perform tasks - and ask for needs to be met - in collaboration with other members of the team.

In the following two articles we look at how each role is managed within the organisational whole. We look at the structure defined through ‘circles’ rather than teams. We then discuss how authorities and responsibilities are distributed through the organisation as a whole - using a dynamic and evolving governance structure.  

THE WHOLE

Purpose

The organisation is defined by and organised around its purpose. The purpose of a ecolocratic organisation corresponds with the ‘aims and objectives’ as set out a traditional company. However, the purpose is dynamic and is discovered through the collaborative working of the individuals that make up the organisation.

Read, Why we need 'ecolocracy'

Read, An introduction to 'ecolocracy' - pt.2

Read the On The Nature of Change (OTNOC) series

The purpose of an ecolocratic organisation is to meet a clearly defined (human) need, or needs. This will almost always be an unalienated, social need. The needs of the members of the organisation can define the purpose of the organisation, delivering change through agency and self actualisation rather than charity or substitution.

Robertson, in describing purpose for Holacracy, stated: “Every organisation has some potential or creative capacity it is best suited to sustainably express in the world, given everything available to it - it’s history, workforce, resources, founders, brand, capital, relationships…[t]hat is what I mean by its purpose.”

The purpose of the organisation is therefore not fixed and its definition cannot not remain the exclusive domain of any one leader or owner. Indeed, finding the purpose is a journey rather than a destination.

“Getting there was a process of discovery: we did not decide on this purpose, we discovered it. I say ‘discovered’ rather than ‘decided’ because getting clear on purpose is more like detective work than like creative work,” Robertson argued.

The purpose of an organisation is to effect change in the world. This assumes a clear interpretation of the current state of affairs, and also a vision of a desired state of affairs. The difference between the current and desired state is described as a ‘tension’.

In a traditional organisation the aim of the company is broken all the way down to individual tasks. In Ecolocracy, the tension of the whole organisation is also broken down, into individual tensions. Tasks in the organisation are understood as ‘tensions’ - changed in the world that need to be made.

The concept of tension is also crucial to the internal management system of the organisation. The primary responsibility of any member of the team is to ‘process’ tensions. Moreover, proposals brought to a governance meeting must centre on a ‘tension’ between the current structure of the organisation and a desired state of affairs.

Strategy

The purpose of an organisation will be made a reality through a strategy. The ecolocracy organisation as a whole will meet to define and organise the delivery of a clear strategy. The activities of each the individuals need to be aligned with a strategy. The strategy is the answer to the question, “what is needed now to express the organisation’s purpose”.

“Inherent in this idea of the strategy is a focus on the future,” Robertson wrote in Holacracy. The strategy grounds decision making within the organisation so that movement is always towards the purpose. It provides “a rule of thumb that aids moment to moment decision making and prioritisation”.

Strategy provides the mediation between the overall purpose of the organisation, and the projects and work flows that are designed to deliver on that purpose. The strategy meeting will conclude with members of the team adopting new projects and tasks to be performed in the future.

Robertson provides a very useful example of strategy - as opposed to simple, prescriptive policy. He states “decision support rules can be expressed, ‘Emphasize X, even over Y’. For example: ‘Emphasize documenting and aligning to standards, even over developing and co-creating novelty’.”

Strategy meetings

Strategy meetings can be held once every six months, and should take no more than four hours. The aim is to map the organisation’s recent history and current context, and to orient everyone. Then the organisation as a whole is asked to identify strategies to steer them to the future. Strategy meetings can be held at circle level (the definition of circle follows, but here can be translated simply as ‘team’).

Strategy meeting process

1. Check-in round. Those attending the strategy are invited to contribute one observation unrelated to the meeting, to purge themselves of distractions.

2. Orientation. The attendees review the purpose, domain, accountabilities of the circle (or team), and describe strategies of outer circle (or wider team).

3. Retrospective: Attendees capture their private reflections, and then post these notes on a wall. The notes are then grouped and a facilitator is elected to describe the key notes or themes that emerge.

4. Strategy generation. Attendees capture and post ideas individually, and then discuss them collectively. The facilitator then proposes one or more strategy proposals. These are processed through an “Integrative Decision Making Process”, described later in this series.

5. Unpack the strategy. Each participant interprets the strategy into projects and next actions. Each participant then shares what she has captured and solicits input.

6. Closing round. Participants are invited to share one reflection from the strategy meeting.

THE PARTS

Tasks and projects

The purpose of any organisation is expressed, or made concrete, through a series of tasks. The task is the equivalent to an ‘atom’ of human labour. The work of the organisation cannot be broken down into any smaller part. The performance of the task is the process of metabolism within the system. It is the transformation of an atom of reality from what is to what the organisation wants it to be.

Tasks are grouped together into projects (and projects are broken down into tasks). David Allen’s bestselling and influential book, Get Things Done provides a prescription of how individuals can manage their tasks and projects.

Each and every task within the organisation should be processed - added to a list, grouped into projects, and prioritized. It can then be assigned to a particular role. The team member performing that role is then responsible for defining the next action for each project, and then performing that action.

A project is a collection of tasks, and the tasks are collected around an outcome which the organisation wants to achieve. This produces organisation out of potential randomness. “A ‘project’ is an outcome to achieve,” Robertson said. “A project can be captured as a true or false statement, that is false now but will be true when the project is complete.”

Tasks and projects are also assigned to roles. Smaller tasks, and smaller projects, can be assigned to a single role. However, as the tasks and projects become too large for any one role, they separate into two or more new roles, which can then be grouped into ‘circles’. Here I set out a clear definition of role. In the next article, I will define and describe circles.

Roles

Tasks and projects are grouped together and assigned to roles. If the purpose of the organisation is the expression of the ‘whole system’ then the roles are the parts of the system. The roles process and perform tasks. They get the work of the organisation done.

It is essential that each role is calibrated to the purpose of the organisation as a whole, so that it acts as part of a coherent and conscious system - but the labour and cognition involved in this calibration is left to the individual who performs any role.

Read, Why we need 'ecolocracy'

Read, An introduction to 'ecolocracy' - pt.2

Read the On The Nature of Change (OTNOC) series

The grouping of tasks and projects into a role may be conducted around a particular skill set or specialism. These in turn will be set out in the job description for the role. For example, bookkeeping and accounting may be grouped into the role, financial officer. Tweeting and blogging can be grouped into the role, social media editor.

A fundamental difference between Ecolocracy and traditional management systems is roles are not fixed, and are not fixed to a person, a particular member of the team. A role - or a series of roles - can be assigned to any team member.

The individual can then ‘energise’ the the role. They bring labour (physical effort, cognition and human agency) to the role. They bring it to life. Whenever possible they are given the freedom, the autonomy, to perform the tasks in their own way, and in their own time.

The Holacracy constitution defines a role as consisting of three specific elements: a purpose to express, domains to control and a set of accountabilities to enact. Some roles will have all three of these parts, though often roles will start out with only a purpose or a single accountability.

A domain specifies something the role has exclusive authority to control on behalf of the organisation. An accountability is an ongoing activity that the role has the authority to perform and is expected to perform, or otherwise manage, for the organisation.

Someone who accepts a role assignment - under the Holacracy constitution - takes on specific and explicit responsibilities: sensing and processing tensions; processing accountabilities; processing projects; tracking projects and next actions; directing attention and resources.

Robertson states: “When you fill a role, you gain the authority to take any action you deem useful to express that role’s purpose or energise one of its accountabilities, as well as you can with the resources available to you, as long as you do not violate the domain of another role.”

The tasks, and the accountabilities, can be measured through metrics, a form of key performance indicator. The metrics, and the level of performance, are available to all other members of the organisation.

He also provides the following guidelines:

1. Refer to job descriptions, which have relevant, accurate, clear and useful information.

2. Roles are invested with the authority to pursue particular aims and to carry out certain tasks.

3. People are left to act as free agents, able to accept role assignments anywhere in the organisational structure, including filling several roles in different parts of the organisation at once.

Tactical Meetings

Human beings have an unrivalled impact on the world because of the ability to work in collaboration, collectively. Producers can achieve more by working in association. But the nature of this association needs to be defined, the authorities and accountabilities need to be negotiated and defined.

People working within Ecolocracy are afforded significant autonomy and most of the time can simply get on with doing their tasks. However, there are times when completing a task necessitates working with, or getting support from, colleagues.

“If you know what needs to be done and have what you need, just do it. If you know who you need to talk to, talk to them. But if not, the weekly tactical meeting provides a fall-back,” Robertson explained.

The negotiation and definition of how roles relate to each other takes place in both tactical and governance meetings. Here we will define and describe tactical meetings.

Needs are the core of tactical meetings. The tactical meetings are the space where an individual performing a role can ask colleagues to meet their needs. Needs can be met through action, or tasks, or through the delegation of authority - or even just clearing everything out of the way.

Tactical meetings can be facilitated in the following way:

1. Check-in round.

2. Checklist review. Facilitator reads checklist of recurring actions by role. Participants respond, ‘check’ or ‘no check’.

3. Metrics review: Brief report from each attendee on metrics for each role.

4. Progress update. Facilitator asks for ‘updates’ for each project. Project owner responds ‘no updates’ or discusses changes since last meeting. Questions, but no discussion.

5. Build the agenda. Attendees are invited to list any tensions (one or two word headlines only)

6. Triage. An agenda item does not represent a general topic to discuss, but a specific tension to process. The goal is not to process the tension for everyone, but only for the circle member who raised it.

a. Facilitator asks, ‘what do you need?’

b. Agenda item owner engages others as needed.

c. Capture any next actions or projects requested and accepted.

d. Facilitator asks, ‘did you get what you need?’

7. Closing round: each person shares one closing reflection. No discussion.

Visible information

There should be a shared space where current projects, checklists, and relevant metrics can be displayed and reviewed. This is the ‘visual management system’. This can be a shared spreadsheet.

Individual action

The authority of any role does sit within a wider governance structure, with its specific rules. However, there is a rule about breaking the rules - to allow for individual action. “Acting outside the bounds of your formal authority is allowed and shall not be considered a violation of the constitution” under specific circumstances, Robertson explained.

These circumstances are as follows: a. You believe the action will resolve more tension for the organisation than it might create; b. There is no time to request any permissions normally required from other roles; and c. the action does not commit the organisation’s resources or assets beyond what you are otherwise authorised to commit to.

CONCLUSION

The purpose of an ecolocracy organisation is to meet a social need or needs. This purpose is made a reality through a strategy. The strategy defines the projects and the tasks that need to be undertaken to bring about the change defined in the purpose.

The fundamental difference between Ecolocracy and standard management systems is needs defines the purpose but also the organisational structure. Individual members of the team are appointed to energise roles, which in turn have the authorities, accountabilities and domains necessary to fulfill their work.

When an individual needs support - or further freedom - from colleagues they come together in tactical meetings. These focus on the needs of the individual. However, this is not sufficient to harness the power and creativity of collaboration. The organisation needs further structure between the individual and the whole to be effective.

In the next article, we will define and describe the ‘circle’. This is the Ecolocracy equivalent to the team. The circle is often a number of roles grouped together in order to deliver a particular project, or to manage a clearly defined work stream. But it can also be so much more.

This Author

Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist, founder of Request Initiative and co-author of Impact of Market Forces on Addictive Substances and Behaviours: The web of influence of addictive industries (Oxford University Press)He tweets at @EcoMontague. 

Read, Why we need 'ecolocracy'

Read, An introduction to 'ecolocracy' - pt.2

Read the On The Nature of Change (OTNOC) series

Help us keep The Ecologist working for the planet

The Ecologist website is a free service, published by The Resurgence Trust, a UK-based educational charity. We work hard - with a small budget and tiny editorial team - to bring you the wide-ranging, independent journalism we know you value and enjoy, but we need your help. Please make a donation to support The Ecologist platform. Thank you!

Donate to us here