One year of self-organization, or how many walking meetings were needed

By Paulina Andrade, communications & branding coordinator from Unity Effect.

Santiago de Chile, any given morning around three years ago. The bus did not come on time and it is just impossible to board on the subway, as the trains are coming one after the other at their full capacity (and beyond!). And, as usual, I am running a few minutes late to work. It’s just a few minutes, but I know what it means: a queue to wait for my turn to print my index finger in the controlling machine at the entrance, and more minutes to be summed up by the end of the month and discounted from my salary. You better forget about breakfast.

Paulina started to work at Unity Effect one year ago.

Before I arrived to Unity Effect (around one year ago), I had worked as a civil servant for some years already, and there was no single element of the described routine that I would not regard as “normal”. It was the world I knew since I was 25. I was literally running all the time and not achieving much by doing so, besides sweat and hyperventilation. It could not be any other way if more than a third of the day was many times ruled by a logic of control (and I am not only talking about the clock at the entrance): reporting meetings, crisis meetings, reporting on the crisis meeting, reporting on reports.

Once, my boss and I (with whom I had a very good relationship and used to cry/laugh together on the rigidity of the system) decided to go for a simple decision without consulting the upper part of the chain of command. It was a good decision, and we were congratulated for it, yet the authority in charge thought it would be a good idea for both me and her to stay until late in the office that Friday evening so we could think- about-what-we-had-just-done-without-consulting-her. Me and my boss felt like kids. We had just been punished.

Does this story sound familiar to you?

Many deep-listening circles and one year of self-organization later

One year ago, I had never heard the terms “self-organization”, “walking meeting” or “Teal” before. The first meeting I had with my “future bosses” (that’s how I used to refer to them back then) was a deep-listening circle, starting with a check-in round on how we were doing and our intentions for that morning. “Do they really care how I am doing?” “What is the connection between how I’m I doing and my professional intentions and expectations for this morning?”, I remember I thought. Now I know that yes, there is a connection. And yes, they did really care, as they care now. That has been always at the core of the team architecture we are still building together as a purpose-driven and self-organized team.

Our colorful scrumban board.

The path we have chosen as an organization is not always the easiest one to travel and yet, it was the easiest one to choose. The logic behind this is quite simple: How can we offer programs about personal development, new leadership, trusting our own intuition or discovering and reconnecting with our personal values or purpose if we are not embodying and experiencing these principles within our team? That, and a deep belief in the idea that we can work, lead and connect in healthier, more meaningful ways. No burnouts involved. You (and the ones surrounding you) don’t need them.

We may argue that structures and routines are important. Yes, they are. The fact that we are a self-organized team does not mean we don’t have them. We use some tools as Scrumban and Slack to improve our efficiency, but also because transparency is another important pillar within our organization. We follow the pull-principle and have developed systems for decision making. Walking meetings are now part of our daily team architecture -this is the term we use to refer to those practices that we have systematized as we have proved they contribute to the health, growth and adaptability of the whole team. We do discuss important things while walking through the park near our office. And by doing so, we also use the opportunity to get some fresh air and peak at squirrels. Now, someone please explain what is wrong with that.

Our backyard: the Rheinaue Park.

What about hierarchies? Well, this is a complex territory, since there is not a unique answer, and every working environment and team is different. But we definitely might want to take a look at the organizational structure if it is hindering or blocking creativity, reducing efficiency and adding unnecessary stress and fear to the workload backpack. At Unity Effect, we have chosen a more horizontal approach, in which strategic decisions are collectively taken by a fully-trusted and empowered team. It might sounds utopian, yet it has been a learning process as well, with it’s ups and downs. We have surely made some mistakes on the way, but we have reflected upon them together. Which excludes personal guilt from the conversation.

The above connects with the closing point of my reflection. I would like to dedicate these final words to the few stones that still make my own backpack heavier than necessary: guilt and insecurity. I do still feel guilty when I am running late (“late” is actually a relative concept in the context of a self-organized team), or very insecure when I’m not sure about a simple, daily action or decision I just took (yes, I’m still traumatized). In our team, these are left to the individual criteria of who is in charge of the concerned area. Of course you can always get advice. Yet I still freak out easily when I’m confronted with decision making. “How do I know if i am doing the right thing on behalf of everybody?” What I have learned during the last year is that, actually, assuming and fulfilling some tasks and projects has nothing to do with pure duty or the fear of disappointing “the boss”. It has to do rather with genuine motivation and responsibility, but in a different sense and coming from a different place. This place is ruled by your intuition and your inner drive -you studied what you studied, and you are passionate about certain things for a reason and that makes you an expert in your field already, and your team should just trust you because of that. You just know who you are and what you are capable of. (And if you are not totally sure about it, you might want to take a look at some of our programs ;)).

It’s been a short and intense first year diving into the world of self-organization and trust-based work. Many walking meetings, deep-listening circles and one year later, I can assure I’m happier and better at work (and beyond!). It has made a difference for me, and could make a difference for many more people. Here and in Santiago de Chile as well.

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