By Kerra L. Bolton
“What is a new reality, and how do you build it?” is one of our most frequently asked questions. A new reality is one in which participants have “more voice, more choice, and more responsibility.” There are as many ways to build a new reality as there are stars in the sky. Therefore, the best way to explain a new reality is to provide successful examples.
In this four-part series, we spotlight efforts in Kortrijk, Belgium, to build a new reality by changing the way people work, learn, and deal with family conflict.
What if you went to work tomorrow and there was no boss?
What if there was no one person to set the vision and mission of the company and assign duties accordingly? What if there wasn’t a single person who measured your performance and determined your pay, based on how well you met the boss’s quarterly objectives? What if you could choose the job responsibilities for which you were best suited, rather than straining to conform to the dictates of a job description?
Ligand, a restorative practices training organization in Kortrijk, Belgium, is building such a reality.
Reinventing an Organization
A self-described “soulful” organization, Ligand began a decade ago as a two-person team dedicated to employing “recovery-oriented” and “positive reorientation” approaches to addressing urgent challenges facing children, families, and communities in Flanders. While Ligand remains devoted to its core mission, the organization’s staff and scope of work have significantly expanded in recent years.
Rather than gather in a conference room to devise solutions on a whiteboard, Ligand staffers began discussing two years ago the idea of flattening their organization. Team members were influenced by Frederic Laloux’s management classic Reinventing Organizations, and wanted to integrate principles that enabled the practice “together-management” at Ligand.
Together-management happens through an interdependent network of autonomous teams. There are no hierarchies, job descriptions, job titles, or bosses. Decision-making is highly distributed among the group. Everyone is given access to all information at the same time. Disagreements are resolved among peers, using a well-defined conflict resolution process. Peers hold each other accountable to shared commitments.
Together-management takes the restorative practices principle that “people are happier and more likely to make positive changes when those in authority do things with rather than to or for them” by abolishing authority.
“When you have one leader, it makes the organization vulnerable,” said Sabine Bourgeois, director of Oranjehuis, a Ligand affiliate that uses restorative practices to help children and families in crisis. “It’s hard to have one leader and not have it be an obstacle for the organization to grow and develop.”
A Restless Leader
Stijn Deprez, Ligand’s coordinator (executive director) grew restless.
“I started questioning myself,” Stijn said. “Is my current role still something for me? I haven’t got the talent for administrative chores, and I have to admit I don’t like them at all. I am someone who enjoys developing and carrying out new ideas.”
Stijn also noticed that a team leader’s patterns often influence the team. Stijn questioned whether his self-identified pattern of believing everything will “end up well” prevented the team from facing its challenges.
Illuminated by the light and heat of a campfire on the Belgian coast, the Ligand team discussed Stijn’s concerns during a team-building retreat. A few colleagues said they thought Stijn’s proposal was an excuse to leave the organization. Some team members voiced regret and guilt, while others expressed gratitude and praised Stijn for his courage. The group refrained from pressing toward solutions until everyone had a chance to speak and be heard.
Then, each member of Ligand’s staff engaged in the annual ritual of burning their employment contracts in the campfire.
“We traditionally make a clear choice to sign a new contract at the beginning of each work year,” Stijn said. “That way, we can begin each year with intention. We know that our job is not all roses and moonshine, and we accept that. Instead of lamenting that, we make a clear choice to come back and experience the joy of our first day of work.”
A New Reality at Ligand
Together, the Ligand team decided to eliminate Stijn’s position as coordinator, and flatten the organization.
The team discussed Ligand’s mission, vision, and values. Next, they wrote all of the organization’s administrative duties and roles on separate pieces of paper and passed them around the circle. If someone wanted to assume a duty, they held onto the piece of paper. Staffers also redefined individual roles, such as “inspirer,” “communicator,” “decision-maker,” “culture conservator,” “administrator,” and “connector.”
“When you are given a certain role, this does not mean you will be the only one who will perform the task,” Stijn explained. “What it does mean is that you have to ensure that eventually the task is brought to an end.”
The decision to flatten Ligand’s organizational structure raised doubts and concerns. However, team members discuss concerns and devise solutions together. Implemented in August, Ligand will try the new organizational structure for a year. One of the biggest challenges is helping people outside of the organization know who to turn to for help and questions.
“We are confident that our new approach will work,” Stijn said. “Of course, we will keep a finger on the pulse. We have many moments of consultation, and we adjust things whenever necessary.”
In the meantime, Stijn uses his free time—now that he is no longer Ligand’s coordinator to experiment with a new productivity tool—doing nothing.
“Apparently doing nothing improves our creativity and problem-solving,” said Stijn, whose new role at Ligand involves maintaining the company’s culture, inspiring others, and external communications. “It may sound strange, but doing nothing makes us more productive. Sounds like a great idea to me.”