The rules of Holacracy are clear, but deciding how to enact them is often up to interpretation. And just like other matters of interpretation, intelligent people will disagree. My goal with this article is to share some of my own personal stylistic choices — my guidelines for effective facilitation and coaching. Here they are in no particular order.
As facilitator, don’t try to regulate others’ emotions. Give everyone the right to feel how they feel. Make it clear you’re willing to help, but just because someone looks frustrated isn’t an invitation for you to engage them. It’s not your job to prevent negative feelings. Shifting a way of thinking and behaving should cause some fear, confusion, or frustration. It’s a nature part of the learning process. Allow space for those emotions. Be like Rumi’s Guest House — welcome and entertain them all. So, if you’re asked for guidance, or someone is clearly struggling with something, maybe offer it, although in the situation of struggling, I’d asked first, “Do you want a timeout?” and otherwise just allow them to have their experience. It’s not your job to change hearts and minds. If it’s going to happen at all it’s going to work from the inside out.
Ironically, I’ve seen coaches emphasize the paradigm shift from “predict and control,” to “adapt and respond,” but in very predicty and controlly ways. This usually shows up as saying too much too soon — like suggesting too many pathways, providing too much framing, or generally answering questions before they’re asked. The motivation seems to be (and I’m speaking here from recognizing this in myself), to prevent uncomfortable problems (i.e. tensions) before they arise. Of course, this is exactly the dynamic we are trying to shift. Instead, coaching should be minimally sufficient to remove the current blockage in understanding and no more. Answer the question. Provide the right prompt. Move on. And remind them they can always ask for a timeout.Be confident in your knowledge, and comfortable in your right to say, “I don’t know. Can I get back to you after the meeting?”
Don’t take a timeout to explain something then immediately go back into process. If you’re going into a timeout at all, then don’t rush things. Afterall, in the timeout space you have no special authority. A timeout only really works if it feels informal. The process has rules — timeouts don’t. Timeouts are a chance to have an informal “chat” or “conversation” about what is going on is great. I often see facilitators say something like, “Timeout…actually in Holacracy we don’t have deadlines, so instead, you’ll want a prioritization…ok time back in,” leaving the shell-shocked participant confused about what to do next . It’s like playing a game of chess if your opponent called “timeout,” moved a bunch of pieces around, then said, “OK time back in.” It’s weird. Instead, at least ask, “Did that help?” or “Does that make sense?” before you shift back into process (and if your coaching didn’t land, take more time, ask again, or clarify you’d like to try again after the meeting).
It’s the facilitator’s job to keep things on track. Not the participants. Just like in sports when a player steps out-of-bounds, they aren’t misbehaving. Often it’s the individuals playing the hardest who step out-of-bounds. So, as a facilitator, you can’t make me mad. I’m just a referee. A guide. And when process-violations are understood this way, it’s easier to manage the process and redirect participants to the proper pathway. And you’d be surprised how it leaks out. For example, even an innocent explanation like, “Objection: NVGO. As I said in my reaction…” suggests the proposer did something wrong (they would likely infer you’d prefer not to repeat yourself). So, just ground yourself in the principle: it’s impossible for the participants to be bad. Sure, you’ll have bad or ineffective meetings, but placing blame on participants never helps. I prefer to think, “It’s always my fault,” then I’ll try to identify what I could do better next time.
Few things are as powerful as saying, “It’s my authority to make this decision and I might be wrong, but here is my reasoning for doing it this way...” Even if others disagree, you’ll still earn their respect. For example, you’re in a timeout and feeling stressed you’re spending too much time trying to explain something. Instead of holding all of it inside your head, just call it out; e.g. “You know, I wish I was doing a better job explaining this, but my main concern now is processing agenda items in the time we have left…so, I’d like to revisit your concern after the meeting and move back into process…does that make sense?” Sometimes we think facilitation should be like a magic show where the audience can’t see what’s up our sleeves. It’s not. It’s good to let the audience in on your secrets. Even when you make the wrong choice, it’s hard not to respect your transparency.
Asking all of the objection test questions because, “I want to help the group learn the criteria,” is a mistake. Learning often helps process tensions, but that kind of learning is in service of getting things done; not an end in itself. Asking all the objection test questions when you don’t need to and telling yourself, “It’s to help them learn…” is probably masking the fact that you just don’t know which question to ask. That’s OK. But don’t disguise your ignorance by telling yourself it’s for others’ learning. Other examples include failing to raise a NVGO objection “…to see if others will raise it,” or hesitating to provide a solution to your own NVGO objection in Integration, because “I want to see if they can figure out how to fix it.” Role-modeling good practice is much more powerful than trying to manipulate and manufacture learning for someone else. At worst, “learning for learning’s sake,” is a lie. At best, it’s just a really a bad way to facilitate. So, if you find yourself justifying a choice on that basis, be skeptical.
The biggest coaching mistake is throwing out advice to an audience who doesn’t feel any tension about the issue. Imagine you’re facilitating a tactical meeting and Amy (Lead Link) says, “Ted, as Secretary, can you cancel next week’s meeting? I’ll be out that day.” To which Ted responds, “Sure thing.” Now, as a coach you probably want to investigate what just happened because chances are good that Ted isn’t making a conscious choice about the meeting. He is just doing what Amy says. But the problem is, at this point neither Amy nor Ted feel any tension about this issue. Their issue is resolved. So, what do you do?
Most coaches would just start talking at them. But one solution is to create some tension for them. I call this strategy “provoking.” For example, in a tactical meeting Karen is clearly disappointed Tim didn’t do something. The coach intervenes by saying, “Well Karen, since Tim’s Production Guru role isn’t accountable for that, you have no right to expect he’ll do it…[dramatic pause]…would you like the right to expect it? Ok, great. Then let’s capture a tension for governance.” As you can imagine telling someone they have no right to expect something is pretty dramatic. It creates tension. And that’s the trick. The coaching creates tension before it solves it. If the participants aren’t feeling any tension, then your coaching has no place to land. It’s the seed scattered on a rock. So, sometimes the best thing to do is to prepare the ground first.
A good facilitator processes one tension at a time and wouldn’t allow someone to let violate another’s processing space. Yet, coaches often do exactly that when they interject their coaching. Of course, as a facilitator, you’ll feel tension about how someone is processing something. It’s inevitable. And it’s fine. But ultimately it’s not your space. It’s not your turn. So, anything you do to process your tension must always be in service of processing the current tension on the table. Often the best solution is to process your tension inside your own head without involving the group. For example, if a participant is seeking consensus, instead of quickly jumping on a soapbox to highlight why that’s a bad idea, first consider whether the point needs to be made right then, or if it would be distracting. It’s a matter of prioritization. If I just spent 10 minutes focusing on the need to use role-based language (e.g. “As Marketing, I feel a tension…”), then I’m not going to delude things by going into a dissertation now going into consensus-seeking behavior. But I’m not going to ignore it either — I just process the tension inside my head; e.g. “Oh, they’re seeking consensus here…hmmm…I’ll just ask, ‘Who has the authority to make this decision?’ and see where that gets us…” Again, as a facilitator, your role is allowed to feel tensions about how someone is processing something — that’s fine. Just be sensitive to putting your own needs above that of the person you’re trying to help.
I’ve noticed sometimes new facilitators are better at meeting mechanics than more experienced ones. How can experience make you worse? My theory is that facilitators get too comfortable and loose with mechanics in order to make the “learning experience” more palatable. It’s a mistake. Whatever the context, if you are the most knowledgeable Holacracy-person then you’ll set the tone for how serious to treat the rules. Rule-based distributed authority doesn’t work if the rules have no authority. Meaning, when the constitution says, “The Facilitator must immediately stop and disallow any out-of-turn comments,” you don’t have the authority to make a subjective determination of when or if you should allow crosstalk. You’re held to the rules just like everyone else. It’s only after you’re adhering faithfully to all of the rules, that you should worry about better ways to enact those rules (i.e. coaching).
If Holacracy is an operating system, then coaching is like the user-interface.You shouldn’t need to be an expert in Holacracy to make it work. The best coaches make it easy for novices to process their tensions, just like anyone can walk into a room and flip a light switch without having to understand the intricacies of electrical circuits. Of course, as a facilitator you’re just doing your best. You don’t need to take care of people (see #1), but the more you can connect the dots between what someone is expressing and the most effective ways to close the tension, the better the facilitation.
“Discretion is the better part of valor.” -Falstaff. To become an effective coach you must learn when to intervene, but to become masterful coach you must also learn when not to intervene. And even though you might encounter lots of different issues, not all issues are created equally. So, the recommended order of priority is this:
With groups with a diversity of experience, I often like to defer questions and see if anyone else wants to answer. Not only does this help support learning for those individuals, but since they have more context on the work of their organization, they often give much better answers than I would. Of course, you should balance those opportunities with just giving a straight answer to move things along. This is different than learning for learning’s sake (#6), because other people sometimes have a way of describing something you can’t (and it just so happens that the learning impact is also exponential; i.e. teaching to fish rather than giving one). This is especially true if you’re an outside facilitator because understanding the client context can be challenging, but also if you’re working in a circle with a mixture of Holacracy-exposure.
Brian Robertson says this in the trainings, and I think it’s under-utilized (or even slightly misapplied). This is applicable to both meeting types, but much more relevant to governance meetings in which the facilitator is responsible for keeping order. Either they see someone getting frustrated, or they want to help them improve their proposal, or they just want to be helpful. It’s a great intention, but misplaced. Go back to #1, everyone has a right to be where they are, so the facilitator shouldn’t worry about trying to manufacture a particular experience. Just follow the rules rigidly. With that said, there are better and worse ways of following the rules rigidly. And you can find ways to make the rigidity feel more emotionally supportive and humane here.
Instead of making everything their choice, or your choice, blame the process. So, instead of saying, “Go ahead and make a proposal…anything is a fine starting point,” go with, “Go ahead and make a proposal…the process saysanything is a fine starting point.” Make it seem like it has a personality of its own. This is different than just saying, “Do this because it’s a rule,” because it gives them an orientation to the intent behind the rules. It’s a softer, more relatable way to understand how to use the process. By de-personalizing the choices, it helps participants resist implicit consensus-seeking expectations.
Here are some examples:
Barry Swartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, makes the compelling case that we get easily overwhelmed when faced with too many options. Especially, when we aren’t educated enough to really understand or appreciate the differences offered by those choices. This is why limiting options is good. So, instead of just laying out 3 possible pathways for someone to take, why not just start with the first one? And if it won’t work, trust you can always offer the second and third. Facilitators tend to offer several choices up front because they can’t know all the nuances of the situation to definitively select just one, and we are hoping the participant can connect the dots for themselves. The challenge is participants aren’t always educated enough to make those choices for themselves. Imagine if a waiter asked you, “We have a few delicious choices for dinner tonight…Option A, Option B, or if you’re lucky, we may still have Option C left. Which would you like?” You have no way of answering that question. You don’t know what you’re ordering. You have no idea what the impact of your choice will be. And worse, since you chose it, you’re going to be responsible for that outcome. New Holacracy practitioners are often facing the same challenge.
As a facilitator you are trying to help people get where they need to go. We do that in the physical world by using a map, a compass, or turn-by-turn navigation. They all work fine, but if you’re in a new country, would you rather try to memorize a broad map of the area, or have a real-time guide take you step-by-step? Obviously, the real-time guide is going to have a higher success rate (i.e. making sure people got to their intended destination). Yet, facilitators often approach a meeting like they are selling maps out of the gift shop. They do a great job framing the meeting, or a particular step of the process, but that’s it. They just explain how it works, then let the participants roam the jungle. For example, “OK, now Clarifying Questions…proposer, you can always say ‘Not Specified.’” Which is great framing. But when the proposer struggles to answer a question, they just sit back and watch them struggle. Don’t do that. Get in there and take participants by the hand. Sure, you said it in the framing, but so what? The important thing is that they know they have that option in the exact right moment. So, it’s best to facilitate/coach as if you were leading blind people through a room. Make your instruction concrete and timely;“OK Secretary…now scroll down and click in the ‘accept proposal’ button in the lower right.”
Coaching is a fine balance between the letter and spirit of the law. Don’t sacrifice accuracy, but don’t miss the spirit either. So, as a facilitator or coach you can say things like, “Technically it’s unspecified, but here is how it’s typically done.” For example, fielding questions like, “How does Holacracy deal with compensation?” It’s technically accurate to say, “It doesn’t…” because there is nothing in the constitution about how all organizations should structure their compensation systems. But unsurprisingly this isn’t a helpful answer. Instead, you can say, “Well, the rules don’t restrict you, so you can look at examples from other companies like badge-based or peer-rating systems.” Expand your understanding of the question. Or imagine you’re in a governance meeting and someone asks for a timeout; “So, if we create this new role…will I be in that role?” A facilitator could say, “I have no idea. That’s an operational decision of the Lead Link.” But if it’s clear from the context that the person would be in the new role, then why not tell them so?