I was recently interviewed by Lisa Gill for the Leadermorphosis podcast exploring the emerging world of self-management and progressive organisations. This header features two of my case study organisations – the wonderful folk from the Sustainable Economies Law Centre and a quote from Friends of the Earth Melbourne on what decentralised governance takes. Here is the interview.
A lot packed into one interview. I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated it. It’s a great entry to the context, purpose and methods of Sarah’s work, which I’m very interested in. It truly was a relief to see how well she laid out (here and elsewhere) the academic precedents she follows from. For me, if in my research I’m not interacting with others in a way that allows spirit to freely flow, and for everyone in the conversation to be prepared for surprises at all times … I’m not interested. I’ll now be keenly following Sarah’s and your work. BTW – I transcribed this podcast as part of my process of slow savoring. I’ll post it in another comment block, in case you’d find it useful.
the podcast exploring the emerging world of
self-organizing teams and progressive organizations.
LG: Hello, and TY for listening to L’M. I’m Lisa Gill and my guest this week is Sarah Houseman, who is an educator, a researcher, an entrepreneur in Melbourne, Australia.
I was introduced to Sarah by Simon Mont who I had on the podcast a while ago and we were talking about how we need to change more than just the structures of our organizations if we really want them to shift.
So, similarly, Sarah’s been doing some really interesting research for her PhD exploring the
of 4 non-hierarchical NGOs. What’s also interesting is the WAY Sarah’s done her research.
She was really keen to reflect the change that she wants to see in society, and so her approach has been
and she’s explored using elements of play and
embodied learning in the research that she’s done.
And I think this makes sense. B’c I think if we want to change the systems we’re in by studying alternatives, it makes sense to be conscious about HOW we study them. 1:19
and also who’s doing the studying.
So Sarah and I talk about
what she’s learned and
how organizations can start to build new capacity,
doing inner work, and
unpacking power, and
seeing collective patterns together. 1:36
It’s really a rich conversation, so I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Here’s me, talking to Sarah Houseman. 1:44
So, Sarah, maybe you could start by telling listeners a little bit about the focus of your PhD and the KINDS of org’s that you’ve chosen to research
and I guess … why now? What is sortof compelling you to dive into this at this stage?
That’s a good Q, Lisa.
I’ve had a career in organizational leadership, having undertaken a range of executive roles, mainly in small to medium enterprises. And, having spent the last couple of years reading about organizations, I think we all know what isn’t working.
I also have confidence, though. I’m confident that we CAN govern organizations better. And I take seriously the MUCH quoted statement from Einstein that says we can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used to make them.
so that says to me
looking and trying to tweek the current system, and expecting transformation, will not lead to a massive change.
So I started my enquiry by really taking a v BIG perspective, which is the challenges of a thing called the anthropocene epoch. The “A”, while it’s a contested idea, calls for humans to operate with greater awareness of Earth’s life-supporting complex and interrelated systems.
So, going from that really really BIG millennial perspective, I thought,
Are there any forms of government that appear to think systemically? … that think holistially? and in that enquiry I found
non-hierarchical organizations. 3:47
And in doing that I also came across a number of different approaches for how to create a self-organizing, non-hierarchical organization, such as
I’m not so much interested in advocating any of those particular technologies
I’m more interested in what’s happening in the organizations that have adopted a horizontal structure. So that was my starting point. 4:20
LG: And you’ve picked 4 examples of non-H org’ns, is that right? 4:26
SH: Yes, … well, picked them is an interesting word.
I asked a number of my networks around the planet for
organizations they would recommend as being COMPETENT in their horizontal structure. And I was actually amazed, Lisa, at how hard it was to find organizations. 4:51 Um, one of them, the Enspiral Foundation was recommended to me by someone in the UK. And, they didn’t know them, they just heard of them, so that was one — the Enspiral Foundation, based in Wellington, but very much a global network.
Another was the Sustainable Economies Law Center, in Oakland California. One very local to me here in Melbourne, in Australia, is Friends of the Earth, Melbourne. 5:20 And I’ve known then for a number of years, and was familiar with their different way of organizing, so that one was easy.
And the 4th one was the Pachamama Aliance, in San Francisco, and that organization I’ve also had a long-term relationship with as a donor, and also a participant in their work, so I knew some of their journey as well. But it was very difficult to find organizations that really were involved and doing this. And one of the ones that might SEEM like they were, or they would naturally BE non-H actually still were adopting very traditional structures.
I should say I’m
also focusing my attention on not for profit org’s who have a commiitment — a mission — for social, political, legal and environmental change. Cause I was interested in that … I suppose the juxtaposition or the congruence between what the mission is for the world — what we’re trying to change as an organization, and then how we structure ourselves, and our relationships with staff and stakeholders.
LG: I’m really curious to know more about what some of your findings have been around ‘how does a non-H way of organizing or governance structure, how does that support organizations like NGOs, or organizations in general, be more sortof hoilstic and aware of the ecosystem in which they’re operating. 7:02
SH: I think supporting the work of many organizations — whether they be profit or not for profit — to become non-H there are some wonderful, um, thinkers, who are creating models for us, that help us understand possible pathways to our transformation. 7:23
And the work of Otto Scharmer, and Jean Gebser are two of my favorites. I go to their work to find a sense of where we might be going. But then I look at the organizations, and I think of how I work in organizations, and we don’t necessarily hold those models, 7:41 where we’re in practice. We tend to be habitual, and pragmatic, as well as responsive to things outside of ourselves, and constrained by our community — our particular culture. So, part of this research really is about noticing the lived experience of the non-H Org. And THEN reflecting back to the work of Otto Scharmer, or Jean Gebser.
And I’m beginning to feel that MAYBE non-H Orgs might contribute to creating a healthy, peaceful and just world. 8:20
LG: So, Sarah, I know you intentionally used some creative tools, and perhaps a different approach in the research methodology for your PhD. Can you say a little bit about what some of those creative tools were, and what the rationale behind using different research tools was.
SH: Creative tools really excite me, Lisa. And having a background in education as well as in leadership means that I’ve worked with and seen how groups and children, particularly, how children create, play and come to new understandings. So, I wanted to bring tools that bring lightness into my methodology. And to open us up beyond just thinking cognitively, and feeling anxious about making “the right answer.”
There are a number of elements to creative processes. 9:20 and I think there are some keys, if anyone is thinking of engaging with them.
Firstly, they need to be experiential. They want to take us beyond our intellectual engagement, and amplify the space between a finished meaning being made. So we want to create 9:42 time for us to make new connections, new stories, and see metaphores emerge that we may not have thought existed. 9:53
Often processes include some sort of artifact, OR … a physical embodiment … standing up, moving … even if it’s standing up and moving from one side of the room to another. That physical movement can change a sense of the room, ourselves, our relationship with other people. And, bringing this into … um, an organizational context for me was VERY important, because governance is pretty serious and organizational leadership, we often forget to play, we forget to laugh, and many organizations don’t have a lot of humor in the board room. 10:40
I was very satisfied to see many of the …. in fact all 4 of the organizations, expressing a lightness of being in their governance practices.
I was very satisfied to see many of the …. well, in fact ALL of the, all 4 organizations, expressing a lightness of being in their governance practices. 10:54
Igniting our imagination and our emotions actually brings us to our heart, to our feelings, and governance for me has been something I felt passionate about. Working in organizations, we want the best outcome. We want things to happen, and when they don’t, we often feel upset, concerned — and all of those water cooler conversations tend to be less productive, if that’s the case. So, bringing experiential activities into the interview really gave an opportunity for participants to … to play, yes … and also to maybe find different connections.
One process I call the poetics of found objects. 11:47 Here, we engage with an object — just a random, fairly uncurated object. And that object will call forth our creative interpretation and response. Everyday objects such as a rock will have a feeling. We can pick it up. We can move it around in our hands. We sort of engage with it just through that action. It stimulates ideas and images.
In my research interviews I invited people to put marks on paper. 12:20 Lisa, that’s meant to be a non-stressful way of saying “drawing.”
LG: I LOVE it.
SH: People often feel quite anxious as soon as you show an empty piece of paper and pencils.
And I invite them to illustrate the dynamics of their organization — the governance, the energy, how it flows, where decisions were made, where decisions got stuck — whatever came to mind. 12:48 And, I became entranced in the way this process opened up new metaphors about the organization’s experience, and that person’s experience in the organization. It led us into some very rich conversations.
One person, for example, imagined their organization as a rain forest. 13:12 Within that metaphor, every part of the organization had values and intersecting roles, seasonal change there was an element of decay, renewal … seeking the light … lots of interesting things. 13:30
Theoretically, this is described as a performative moment — when we draw. And in that moment, our unconscious and subconscious perceptions … such as our memories and our connections … emerge. That’s why these creative methodologies are particularly powerful. If we stay in our usual cognitive, focused, intellectual mind … that sort of free-flow won’t occur. 14:03
So, I found that in the parts of my conversations with people — where we played through drawing or through selection of images — I suppose more surprising depth, surprising ideas for the interviewee AND for myself emerged.
Images are used as potent awakeners, as marketing, on the television, film and also in this research. 14:33
I’ve used a collection of postcards as stimulus sometimes. And, with these 4 organizations I used the Motherpeace Tarot deck, 14:45 which were designed in 1981 by Vicki Nobel and Karen Vogel. These cards, if you’re familiar with tarot cards, there are 78 cards, which encompass the human life journey. 14:59 So the cards are very powerful in their archetypal resonance. They also – this particular card set – was designed to be feminist, to represent a diverse perspective of sexuality, of racial types, skin colors, as well as being full of magical and mythical symbols… 15:25 which inspired people, and also excited them and made them laugh.
LG: Yeah, I LOVE that. I think it kinda circles back to your point earlier about Einstein’s quote that we’re not going to solve today’s problems with the same thinking that created them in the first place. I think it makes sense, then, to look at the very way that we study or research other organizations to learn about them, in order to create new models of our own. And so I love that you’re helping organizations that you researched to look at their organizations through different metaphors and creative tools, and kind of tapping into whole body wisdom, I guess. It makes total sense, and I think it makes sense in terms of contributing to helping the wider population … yeah, access something about what is it that these people are doing differently, and ‘How can we start to think about organizations in a more holistic and systemic way?’ And part of that starts with how we look at them, it’s a bit like the whole ‘Schrodinger’s cat’ thing … (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=IOYyCHGWJq4) the nature of how we observe things and how that influences what we take away from it. 16:39
SH: Absolutely, Lisa, and I’ve found very interesting parallels. If we look in society, and we have our mainstream organizations — which are hierarchical — and then we’ve got these … small, a small outlying … groups that are exploring different models.
The same applies for academic research. 17:03 Mostly it’s very … I suppose, intellectually focused, having to be rational, linear, argued in an intellectual manner, with a lot of facts and data. 17:16
I have a lot of facts and data, but I’ve gathered them in a different way, substantiating the traditional ways with other creative ways … and, again, I’m part of a GROUP of outliers who’ve existed for many decades trying to bring different ways of thinking into academe, 17:49 that are going to — I suppose — speak more to the whole person, speak more to social change, intellectual change and create new systems — education systems. So, yes, it’s VERY connected. Not … This sort of research is not separate from the community I’m wanting to understand better. 18:00
LG: So what are some of the examples, then — if you could share with our listeners — that you came across in these organizations? 18:09 What are some practical examples of some things that they are doing differently in these non-H ways of organizing?
SH: I think one of the most impactful examples of difference is the idea that everyone would be paid the same amount in the organization. Both Friends of the Earth, Melbourne and the Sustainable Economies Law Center adopt that policy. If there is a pay increase, the group decide whether the organization can do it, should do it … when, and how.
If we just imagine that for a moment it eliminates the need to compete with your peers, with your co-workers to move up the hierarchy, to succeed, and to earn more. So, that’s a pretty profound difference.
A second one is more than a practice, it’s actually a philosophy, and that’s a commitment to transparency. 19:11 A number of technological tools exist now to really assist this and make it possible. One such tool is Loomio (https://www.loomio.org/), which is a decision-making platform. And that facilitates the global participation AND asynchronous decision making used by the Enspiral Foundation. 19:34
And there’s a lot of conversation about the value of things like asynchronous decision making, particularly for people who don’t operate as well in a group situation … people who might be more introverted, or might require time to consider their decisions, outside the intensity of a meeting. 19:57 And, so, that’s been seen as very valuable for a number of organizations.
The commitment to transparency also shows up in an open source approach to sharing policies and constitution. Enspiral, the Sustainable Economy Law Center and a larger network of organizations involved in the US called the Not For Profit Democracy Network work together to share their information so that this community of practitioners can strengthen and develop further. This approach unpacks the various tasks of management and leadership, 20:43 and effectively separates them from the personality, which is usually, in organizations they see the leader AS a personality rather than a role.
Another practice I find was common to all 4 organizations was integrating everyday processes that helped develop the human skills of each person in the organization. Words like
were used frequently when I asked people the qualities that characterize their engagement together. And I think this really underlies the effectiveness of these organizations.
One extraordinary conversation that emerged in each of the organizations in a different way, depending on what was floating around at a particular time I walked into it, were conversations around power. 21:49
(continued – and I do hope this is useful)
It might be power related to gender, power related to roles, and being prepared to talk, not maybe as part of the everyday organizational sortof … make decisions, move our projects on, but having these conversations from time to time to understand power.
The 4 organizations I worked with were, of course, all colonial countries … Australia, New Zealand and North America. And these organizations are very willing to understand …’What is the impact of being brought up within a colonized country?’ ‘How do we become aware how we perpetuate colonizing, particularly if we are white and male, or white and female in a different way, but there’s relationships with people who have less privilege than ourselves.
So, that conversation was alive and possible. And the things that I really 23:03 noticed was that those conversations were undertaken without people becoming upset or offended. 23:11 They might take time to process, or not be ready to continue to talk about it, but people took responsibility for their learning and engagement.
LG: So it’s really interesting, because you started to touch on, you know, those kinds of conversations about positional power and self-awareness. What are some of the other ‘human skills’ that you found these organizations were conscious about developing, that, you know, other organizations or people could learn from? 23:43 Like, what skills from a human and relational perspective do you think are important to cultivate in order to work in more non-H ways?
SH: The human skills really speak to a major difference that I observed in a non-H organization, which is the commitment to interior work. 24:04 By that I mean, you know, ME work or YOU work works on the things that you react to, becoming, I suppose, more self aware of who we are and how we are.
And that’s a pretty big change from an ordinary organization, where really our interior state is our own business. But here, we’re bringing more of ourselves to work.
Otto Scharmer would say this is an example of an organization moving from a state of separation to one of integration, of people moving from separation to integration. So here are some of the things that I observed that these organizations did. 24:53
One of them was to sit together, in circle – which is a very important non-H symbol in its structure, there’s no edges there — to sit in circle together daily. It might be over lunch, in meetings — but there was a sense of meeting together.
And, there’s a lot of conversation about listening. The skill of listening really is something that has to be cultivated. Because within listening, we have the question of how we listen. So, I notice people using a phrase like ‘I’m curious about …” And that instantly opens a conversation a different way than a repartee, where I’m having to defend myself more.
There was also a sense of being able to listen to the center, rather than to an individual speaker. Listening to the center might mean listening to ‘What are we working on here?” 26:00 “What is going to be the best outcome for the organization at this point?” And so there appeared to be less attachment to MY idea, or MY strategy. There were a lot of, really, it seemed like effortless letting-go once everyone had talked through an idea. And I think the process of decision making where you work an idea through a number of iterations, with different purposes to each iteration —
sometimes to listen,
sometimes to offer a concern,
other times to vote,
That really gave people time, time to listen to many aspects of each issue.
I also noticed patience. And sometimes this was a bit of a learning edge, 26:57 cause it’s a hard one for all of us. But the
patience for differences to exist, particularly if they’re philosophical,
patience in the onboarding process, where you’re learning a new way of working, and encompassing a number of different technological platforms. And not just a new way of working in an organization, like a RADICAL shift. for all your expectations of yourself and your team. And I think I’ve observed over the last 8 months 27:30 the Sustainable Economies Law Center and the Not-For-Profit Democracy Network, a LOT of conversation about ‘How do we support people with onboarding?’ and
giving people buddies,
giving people space to share where they need support to get how this new system works. 27:50
One very important human skill is that of being able to sit in a circle and value that person who brings up an idea very different to your own. I think conflict is expressed slightly differently in a non-H organization. Firstly, it’s able to be more up-front. And, if ideas are received with curiosity, then my different perspective won’t be seen as something to be attacked or destroyed. It’ll be seen, maybe, as an opportunity to listen to something that MIGHT give us an idea of
something we need to attend to,
a new pattern, or
an opportunity for our organization to respond to in a very proactive and beneficial way.
LG: So what are some of the shadow sides and the challenges that you encountered when observing these organizations in this kindof non-H way of working? 29:00
SH: Um … I’d like to start with giving you a sense of my sense of what shadow is. Shadow work involves becoming aware of the parts of our organizational self that we’re unable to know. So, it’s a bit of a conundrum to start with ‘How do we get underneath to even know what it is that we’re unconscious about as a group?’ 29:26
The goal of bringing shadows into the light is the insights and the new opportunities and the great power that comes through integration. Shadows aren’t necessarily negative. They are really just unconscious. and b’c they’re unconscious, b’c they’ve been put outside the sense ‘this is who we are,’ they can be emotionally strong trigger points. And I think that’s what I found with the organizations in different ways. 30:01 And I suppose the context we have to think about with non-H organization is, will a non-H organization fit with the dominant hierarchical system it’s part of? Because it has to exist w/i this world. It has to make money, it has to keep on growing, it has to communicate itself, when it’s slightly wierd.
One thing that came up fairly consistently 30:30 was a sense of unease, or just putting to the side the whole issue of money and marketing yourself. 30:38 And it was particularly for some NGOs, it can be seen as a bit of a mucky thing, you know, you can be contaminated by that terrible stuff. Yet, money is needed to function in society. That was one aspect of money.
Another aspect of money was, ‘How do we communicate our benefits when we are so different?’ Is there a clear way that we can say, ‘Invest in this, even though – or donate your money to this – even though it doesn’t look and feel the same way.’ So, developing a way of selling the value of the structure felt a bit like a challenge, 31:24 because it felt like it was something that might, if you were making a transition from hierarchy to non-H, it’s something that takes time.
Another shadow that definitely emerged was a fear of hierarchy, because of course hierarchy is the opposite to, in some ways. And, so what do we do when there are natural hierarchies?
One thing that was a very interesting shadow, again this was consistent, was the quetion of founders. 32:00 And this issue didn’t emerge with the founder themselves. They were usually unaware of it being a concern. It more emerged as a sense of concern or worry that the founder … what would happen when that founder moved on? And so it really showed up that that visionary leadership of the founder still impacts in a non-H environment. I think that one’s got a lot more to be explored. And I think there are others, also, starting to see that as a bit of a thread.
This is definitely a process, Lisa, of shifting from hierarchy to non-H because we’ve all been so well trained in non-H 33:00 and we can’t help but look at that person who was the founder who holds so much knowledge, passion and vision, it’s very easy to project our hopes and fears onto that person, and then, shadow emerges. 33:15
Another aspect of shadown which really marks the horizontal organization is the issue of responsible accountability, particularly when we look at 33:29 the power of relationship between these people in these organizations. Giving feedback without the protection of hierarchy, and without damaging those relationships emerged as a challenge. I think this is a challenge for personal skills and harks back to the importance for human skills, but also, it shows up the importance of collective agreements about deliverables with projects and tasks. And it calls for even greater clarity than in a hierarchy for personal boundaries.
The competition and winning is a way of approaching the world that we’ve all been brought up to excel at if possible 34:21 and we’ve been nurtured and rewarded to compete and to win. So, in a non-H environment, those qualities of winning can be banished as ‘that’s not us!’ 34:34 But then there’s a deficit, because we also need to celebrate successes and collectively share the success. So that’s another … I think a learning edge or a tension for some non-H organizations.