Diederick Janse is co-author of the Dutch book Getting Teams Done and Holacracy Master Coach & Trainer. During the online Meetup ‘Navigating Organizations in Disruptive Times’ in May 2020 he shared the differences he saw between organizations that are more hierarchical and companies that are used to being self-organized.

The list is probably not complete but does give you a sense of the way organizations are navigating the COVID-19 months.

When COVID-19 turned the world upside down, it changed many aspects of our lives, including work. Companies were forced to close or shift to remote work at a moment’s notice. As a coach who supports organizations in becoming more adaptive to change, Diederick Janse naturally became curious about the differences between conventional (management hierarchy) and self-organizing companies.

These are some of his findings. Some of them are pretty fundamental, while others are more practical.

Fundamental differences

1. Locus of control

Locus of control is a concept that describes how someone perceives change and the level of control and influence they have over that change. An external locus of control means you experience change as “happening to you,” with little or no influence on how it affects your life. In contrast, someone with a more internal locus of control experiences at least some level of influence over how that change unfolds and how they can respond and adapt to it.

This is a spectrum that we all move along all day long, but what I noticed is that people in self-organized companies are more used to, comfortable with, and trained at having influence (i.e. they have a stronger internal locus of control). Rather than withholding their voice, resisting the change, and discharging their energy in complaint and gossip, they raise their voice, flag issues, share their opinion, propose ideas, and ultimately make decisions, because this is what they do every day already.

One example: when COVID-19 hit, employees at Devhouse Spindle didn’t wait for managers to fix things for them (they don’t have any), they took action by ordering monitors for people to work from home, helping colleagues optimize their home offices, and shifting meetings online.

2. Power structure

Related but different: self-organizing companies have a horizontal power structure, rather than the vertical power structure of a management hierarchy. When the shit hits the fan, they don’t look “up” for a super-hero manager to come in and save the day. Instead, they look to their peers and solve it themselves, together. Having super-hero leaders can work well, but it’s a rather big bet: how many of us can truly say they excel at all the myriad roles that together we call “manager”? Being less leader-centric and more team- and peer-centric can go a long way to remove bottle-necks and increase organizational resilience and flexibility.

Practical differences

3. Tension

Tension is fuel. Tensions – when flagged and addressed – can help the organization improve and evolve continuously, rather than in big, punctuated re-orgs. Sensing and processing tensions is a skill that people in self-organizing companies practice every day. When working remotely, it is harder to sense tensions and the bar to bring the tensions to the meetings is even higher. When tensions aren’t being brought up and acted upon, companies lose access to the information and energy that they contain.

4. Roles versus positions

In self-organizing companies, people fill multiple, well-defined roles, rather than a more static position or job. Having a portfolio of roles means I’m already more used to juggling different roles, dropping one or putting it on the backburner, and taking on another one that requires urgent attention. This flexibility and mental agility (switching roles seamlessly, constantly, and always making them clearer) is an incredible advantage that self-organizing companies enjoy.

One example that we’ve seen at a GGD (Dutch public health service organization) is people switching roles instantly, from routine work to fighting COVID-19 (e.g. contract tracing), reorganizing on the fly, from the bottom-up (horizontal) rather than top-down (vertical).

5. Decision-making

In times of crisis, what would you prefer: having endless meetings about all the non-routine issues that pop up, small and large? Or roles that have real, well-defined authority to act autocratically? Because that’s what self-organization (particularly with the Holacracy framework) means: distributing authority and leadership in roles, and then handing those roles to the people that can do the work. Of course, you’ll still have issues that can’t or shouldn’t be decided by one role, autocratically. Good thing you’ve got those structured, disciplined meetings where people leave ego and office politics by the door and focus on solving real tensions, one at a time. And incidentally, the fact that those meetings are so structured means they work great online, too (see Dutch articles at Energized.org about Voys, Secrid, and others).

Final thoughts

One question that I find myself thinking about a lot lately. Holacracy gives us wonderfully systematic ways of processing the tensions we sense on behalf of our roles and of the organization. But what about our personal and interpersonal tensions, like anxiety, predictions, assumptions (‘they’re too busy’, ‘he will think I’m arrogant‘), triggers, blaming myself and others, and all that messy human stuff we do? Do we have habits and processes for dealing with those, in a way that is as systematic, structured, and routine as what we’ve got for role and organizational tensions? At Energized.org we have regular connection calls to share and explore what comes up for us as humans. We use the same nowadays with clients.

A crisis has the potential to shock us out of our assumptions, our habits, our structures, and try a different path. I hope many people, leaders, organizations are seeing and using that potential for change.