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Leading and managing at Outlandish

By Pete Burden, 16 Dec 2016

Leading and managing are done differently at Outlandish from how they are done in a traditional, hierarchical organisation. We have a circle-based structure, and make decisions using consent, but the differences go beyond that.

The first new idea is that being successful at leading and managing really means being yourself – there’s no right way to be. We are all different and we all have unique ways to contribute. That means that learning to lead and manage means learning to be really honest – or congruent. And it means iterating and getting it wrong as much as we get it right.

This is a probably a lifelong process.

The second idea is that everybody at Outlandish leads and everybody manages. That means everyone takes responsibility for making sure they understand – and helps generate – the direction in which we are heading. Everyone also helps create that future by proactively taking action that they believe will move themselves and the cooperative forward positively.

At the same time, we try to pay attention to what other people are doing, be empathic (putting oneself in another’s shoes) and be respectful of everyone else’s right to learn, and make mistakes (in other words, their right to be human). Everybody supports other people, whatever their role or position.

Obviously, this process is rarely smooth, so everyone is always testing – taking action – and reflecting.

Our sociocratic processes for decision-making support this, but obviously a lot of work happens outside formal meetings too. It requires time and energy to be aware and notice what is going on. Especially of how we talk to each other.

The third idea is that leading and managing is not about getting people to do stuff. It is not about delegating, controlling or dominating other people.

It is not about changing people or shaping them, or even ’empowering’ them. People – and groups – grow naturally. So managing at Outlandish is about engaging with and supporting other people as they grow and develop, when they want to, and at their own pace.

This often means coaching and facilitating, which again means a focus on listening and conversation. And it often means getting out of the way!

Sometimes it means helping people find out what they are good at, and supporting them as they become even better at it. This means sending opportunities their way, and it means helping them identify and remove obstacles.

But it always means leaving people with the power to lead – never taking it away.

Leading and managing means developing yourself!

All this means that an important activity at Outlandish is developing yourself. This is why we have Personal Development Plans (PDPs) and the related Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). These help people as they grow and develop, by recording direction and aims. They belong to the individual, not a manager.

But developing yourself isn’t just about the formal processes, it is about noticing – everything that is going on internally (‘ego-struggles’) and externally (‘power struggles’).

Also central to developing yourself is learning to enquire and explore. You can enquire in three ways:

  • into yourself, into your own character, or feelings, for example;
  • into what those around you want, and are like;
  • into the context around us, including power.

Enquiry is at least as useful as the more common way we understand leading, which is often as ‘advocating’ – holding a position and trying to persuade others of its merits.

Developing yourself does mean learning to be part of the conversation, and communicating clearly, about what we think and feel. It is particularly important to work out what we want, and learn to communicate it, by, for example, making clear proposals. While creating space for others to say what they want to say too. 

Of course, in a business we often also create structures, and processes, and policies and procedures. At Outlandish many of these, including how we make decisions, are decided and enacted collectively. This is helped by high levels of transparency, which make it possible for everyone to have an overview – of finance, projects or whatever. People use this knowledge, and their own unique perspective on it, to help everyone work well as individuals, and as a group.

All of the above is only an ‘ideal’ – we can only approach it, and never permanently achieve it. We do it by trying to engage in conversations honestly, respectfully and empathically. Ultimately leading means trying to deal with the many paradoxes of life, in the moment, and in practical ways.

Through conversation we keep trying to make pragmatic and positive decisions in the absence of good data, and even of good solutions.

And we keep reflecting. Learning to lead is learning to learn!