As agents of continuous change, we’ve been watching organizations closely during the months that were colored by COVID-19.

Change is everywhere now, and it’s both frightening and exhilarating depending on where you stand. How do we cope, as people and as organizations? Is survival the only goal here? Or can we change in more lasting and meaningful ways, even in the midst of crisis, and even with many of us working from home? If so, where do we start?

These are some big questions, and we don’t have ready-made, 6-step answers for you. If you’re willing to turn on your curiosity and start exploring with us, then you might be interested in the perspective Diederick Janse shared during the international online Meetup. You can find the takeaways from the previous Meetup here.

Diederick Janse is co-author of the Dutch book Getting Teams Done and Holacracy Master Coach & Trainer. He brings a different lense to Holacracy, taken from his exploration of Systems-Centered Training.

Survival trumps learning

Anxiety and curiosity cannot coexist (not in the same moment): if we fear that our survival is at stake, our survival mechanisms take over (e.g. “go it alone” to solve an issue or make a decision or look to someone else for direction). This is true for us individually, it is true for teams, and it is true for organizations as a whole. What does that mean? Survival trumps learning.

That said, people and organizations rarely spend all their time in survival mode. Generally, given enough time, the anxiety will lower enough that our curiosity comes online:
‘What is going on?’
‘How am I being impacted?’
‘How do I respond?’

Diederick Janse legt uit

Information from the group about what happens when anxiety kicks in:

  • managers start micro-managing
  • more dashboards and Excel sheets
  • less time for people
  • the effect of a magnifying glass, what was already there becomes bigger


Crisis and disruption generate anxiety. That’s hard-wired into us and there’s no fighting that. What you can influence is how long it takes an individual, a team, or an organization to go from anxiety to curiosity. Let’s call that “time-to-curiosity (TTC).”

If you want to be responsive and learn to surf the waves of change, rather than have them crash over you, your job is to decrease TTC, to decrease time-to-curiosity. In yourself, in your team, in your organization.

When you’re curious, you’re opening your boundaries to take in new information about the reality you find yourself in. When you’re anxious, you close these boundaries and fall back to the assumptions and strategies that have kept you safe in the past.

Decreasing time-to-curiosity, therefore, means opening your boundaries to the current reality. In a team or organization, that means creating a climate in which you’re continuously learning, what SCT calls a reality-testing climate. What is going on? This is what I’m seeing, what are you seeing?

Getting curious about a challenging reality is incredibly hard. We are incredibly good at NOT facing reality, about NOT facing what in Holacracy we call tensions. Some of the strategies we use for NOT facing reality, for NOT facing a difficult situation, include:

  • ignore/sweep under the rug
  • come up with comforting explanations
  • distract ourselves
  • make assumptions about others
  • make positive or negative predictions
  • personalize, i.e. blame yourself or others, etc.

In the current context of working from home, this is even more important. It is easier to stay in our comfort zone, there are fewer cues to pick up on, and fewer opportunities to process the issues and tensions that come up, not just around work but in how we work together.

Create a reality-testing climate

So if you intend to create a reality-testing climate in your team or organization, this is what you’re up against. These time-tested strategies for keeping us safe, for closing our boundaries, for NOT changing. In essence, they are all defenses against the present moment. The good news is, we can learn to recognize and undo these defenses, in ourselves and in our teams and organizations.

Holacracy supports reality-testing

Now let’s talk about Holacracy a bit. One way to look at Holacracy is that it is a practice for an organization and for the people in it to face reality and get curious, again, and again.

Here are a couple of ways in which I see that:

  • To make it normal and safe for people to talk about tensions.
  • To counter our impulse to personalize by clarifying and referring to roles.
  • To ask questions before we react.
  • To go in a round one by one to hear everyone’s voice.
  • To filter out some or all of the anxiety and assumptions that come up when we try to make a decision (i.e. by testing objections – predict the future, think on behalf of others, etc.)
  • To make requests and check whether you have a right to expect that.
  • To have a Facilitator that just asks curious questions, like what do you need, are we still helping you, what’s the first next step?

These are all ways of getting curious, learning something new rather than just surviving.

Seeing tensions as they are

I want to end on a personal note: the most powerful way that Holacracy has impacted me personally is in normalizing tension, in changing my relationship to tension from one of anxiety to curiosity. And in times of change, that curiosity is much-needed to ensure that we don’t just survive, but instead, develop and transform ourselves and our organizations.

Start with that one tension that makes you curious

If you were to adopt Holacracy now: start with the tension that makes you curious about Holacracy. And follow that tension. You don’t have to throw in the entire toolbox and constitution. You can do it step by step and you will see us do that more often too when we support organizations. Just follow that first tension.

We’ll be sharing more about the step-by-step approach to Holacracy. But if you’re already curious about what it could offer your organization, please reach out. Diederick and his colleagues are happy to share more.