Responsibility is the ability to respond. An ability is no personal characteristic, it is a competence everyone can learn. As there is just the need to be able to respond, the precondition for responsibility is a question. So, whenever we do something, because we have done it always this way, it is not responsible. In the pyramid a lot of questions are not allowed, as they are decided by a superior, so how could subordinates take responsibility for their thinking and doing? The cooperation in circles, where every perspective is heard, where every member contributes responding his/her competences, enables responsibility.
The pyramid is the symbol for hierarchy, the most common structure of organizations and companies but also e.g. in biology and mathematics. It is our way of thinking structured, so often we use hierarchies in thinking, conceptions and also in organizations. Most people tell me, that this is the only existing form or the best. Which alternatives do you know to structure objects, subjects or ideas/ concepts?
The organizational hierarchy has some specific characteristics like:
- The apex is one person or a small group of persons.
- The base can be up to thousands of people with no subordinates.
- All persons have one specific position in that hierarchy, which is determined by the level and their line of superiors and subordinates.
- Interaction just happens in that line of superiors and subordinates by definition, i.e. peers on the same level can communicate, but to interact with visible effect it needs the approval by a superior.
The principles of a hierarchy in consequence are:
- Leadership is “Power over”
- Carrier means “Freedom of”
- Dependency of relations/ relationships: an dependent part needs always a dominant counterpart
- An attitude of I and you: identification by demarcation
This results in thinking in guilt and consequently the avoidance of faults and responsibility; a culture of mistrust, dishonesty and fear. This is not, because a leader is incompetent; this is system immanent. And how we found out in an exercise everyone feels uncomfortable, also the superior.
The way could be in direction of circle culture/organization, with a new definition of leadership: “in every chair a leader”.
- Leadership isn’t anymore legitimized by position and superiors, but by all people in the circle. Leadership means not any more power over the involved people/employees, but power with your colleagues as it is determined by function (competence), therefore it is rotating and it is shared as everyone takes responsibility for the common goal/vision.
- So the next underlying principle refers to the common goal, as now everyone as part of the circle is free for this vision/goal.
- The relations are determined by responsibility for the whole, to which everyone contributes his parts in full responsibility. And responsibility also means to step back, if it is not your competence. The relations are equivalent, but not equal!
- The members identify by terms of I and we: “I” refers to my role and my contribution to the whole and “we” to this whole, which is more than the sum of the elements.
The solution in companies, which are task-oriented systems, isn’t always a strict circle culture, even when this exists (Semco, Brazil, or Sekem, Egypt as best practices). It is possible to implement on the e.g. functional hierarchy a circle organization as it is known for project organization. sociocracy and holocracy are mentioned as examples.
The difference is, that the circle decides its common goal and the principles and way, how to achieve it. I also worked for fire fighters. There is no space for circle communication in case of emergency. But the leader roles in that case, the processes and the rules for co-operation were decided together in the circle. The result has been growing trust, less discussions, less faults and in that specific case it meant more survivals.
The huge challenges are communication and decision processes, because these are crucial for the success. And only when everyone is highly disciplined in following the agreed objectives, processes and rules, responsibility for the results in the circles can be achieved. The guiding question of decisions is not anymore: what is the optimum, but “With which results can I live?” (systemic consensing). There is no optimum, as every perspective has its own optimum: the controlling has his own task and goals, which are often conflicting to the tasks and roles of the marketing. So, the base is the respect for the diverse perspectives and the common attitude to look for the “and” instead of the “or” as all perspectives have their legitimacy in a decision.
The effort is rewarded by results: not only everyone is responsible, that it comes to a result in a meeting/workshop..., but also that it is a result, which every single member of the circle will stand for afterwards, even if it is not his/her specific optimum.
And to come to an end, there is a last thought:
Organizations seen as mechanistic closed systems are developed like cars in the lab. When a car is on the street, it can be analyzed, but not developed. For innovation as well as for repair and maintenance it has to be brought back in the lab or the garage. Reorganization consequently results in times of less performance.
Organizations seen as living organisms develop by living, by eating, working, sleeping, breeding... Innovation, reorganization and growth is conducted while its day-today-business, if it is integrated in the functional and governance processes. The circle organization is one way to change the self-perception of organizations and companies into continuously learning and developing organisms, in which every persons contributes for the whole.