Getting Stuck and Unstuck in Integration

How to Navigate Difficult Integrations in Holacracy®

If you follow the process exactly then integration is usually fast, but not always. Sometimes particularly sticky or complex issues take more time. Figuring out whether the issue is; a) really complex and therefore deserving of time or; b) created because something has gone wrong, is what this post is about.

For a basic overview of the integration step go here.

The Constitutional Rules

The Holacracy constitution sets the stage for integration, which is important to remember because while the discussion may feel loosely structured or dependent upon the facilitator’s subjective judgment, the constitution gives us some guidance on how to ensure the conversation is constructive. So, while there are nuances to facilitating difficult integrations, even novice facilitators* can rely on these basics to get them through.

*I often refer to “facilitators” and “facilitation,” but this guidance isn’t specific to facilitators, because any circle member equipped with these distinctions can speak up to help the circle work through its issues.

If the Objector Won’t Budge: The objector must make a “good faith effort” to work toward a solution, otherwise, the facilitator may throw out the objection [3.2.6b]. This is rare in practice, but if this happens, the facilitator can usually just explain the rule and the objector will usually become more cooperative.

If the Proposer Won’t Budge: The proposer must also make a “good faith effort,” but that effort is more clearly defined as providing answers to questions about the tension [3.2.6c]. Importantly, the proposer must provide; a) specific examples of how the original tension was created; and b) specific cases in which any given counter-suggestion wouldn’t work. Otherwise, the facilitator can throw out the proposal altogether.

However, sometimes even good faith isn’t enough. In many cases, the group just needs to get more specific. The objector may suggest an amended proposal and offer reasonable arguments for why it should resolve or prevent the tension in each specific situation the proposer used to illustrate the tension. Then, upon the objector’s request, the proposer must present a reasonable argument for why the amended proposal would fail to resolve or prevent the tension in at least one specific situation [3.2.6d].

So, while neither party (nor anyone else) is responsible for solving the others’ tension, these three rules ensure that neither party can torpedo the discussion.

Getting Stuck and Unstuck

While the Holacracy constitution gives you guidance on how to handle a stalemate or filibuster, there is a lot of gray in between. Often individual participants aren’t consciously trying to slow things down, but rather the group’s implicit assumptions and norms about how to discuss problems are getting in the way. To get at these, there are a few things to look for (in no particular order).

1. There are 4 or More Objections

It’s rare to have more than 3 distinct and valid objections. So, if you’re stuck trying to integrate a long list of objections, do the following to determine if some are invalid (and remember anyone can ask the facilitator to retest an objection [section 3.2.6a]). Make sure; 1) you resolve any NVGO objections first because this often resolves other issues; 2) each objection is distinct and belongs to one person; 3) each objection meets all four validity criteria [Constitution 3.2.4]; 4) and finally, pay particular attention to any objections about resources (e.g. anything about not having enough time or money) or objections that may be coming from the person (e.g. salary, performance management, etc.), because they are likely invalid and can be removed immediately.

2. Check for “Proposal-Attachment Disorder (PAD)”

Sometimes a resistant proposer needs to be reminded that the goal of integration and indeed all governance, is to solve tensions (i.e. problems) not to implement particular solutions. If a proposer thinks that the best way to solve their tension is to change significant parts of the business, then it’s natural for them to pre-craft a proposal. However, in doing so, their feeling of proposal-ownership increases. After all, they’ve invested time and attention to thinking through this problem — the objector just got to the party. Understanding this response means you can express appreciation for the proposer’s work (e.g. “You’ve obviously spent time thinking through this…”) while also redirecting their focus, “…can you give us a specific casein which the objector’s suggestion would fail to address your tension?”Remember, the constitution requires them to do so if asked. Finally, if you come across this, highlight the existence of PAD. It’s tongue-and-cheek but easy to remember. When Holacracy practice is new there is a natural pull to test your understanding by crafting governance, so there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the phenomena. You just don’t want to be overly complimentary or enthusiastic about pre-crafted governance that it becomes a norm.

3. Check for “Objection Creep (OC)”

OC occurs when the discussion unconsciously shifts from the recorded objection to a different objection (usually one that hasn’t been charted or tested). Simply asking, “Are we still solving for this specific objection?”usually helps refocus the discussion. Sometimes objection creep results from an objector’s own innocent confusion about their tension. This makes integration feel ungrounded because the objector is unconsciously switching back and forth trying to resolve different objections. For example, an objector might say, “It will cause harm…because it doesn’t make any sense. Susan doesn’t have time to do this, maybe we could put it on Terry’s role, but something like ‘Publishing…’ is just too vague.” This response could actually be 4 distinct objections (1. It doesn’t make sense; 2. Susan doesn’t have time; 3. Could put it on Terry’s role; 4. “Publishing” is too vague). Distinguishing a single independent reason from dependent or supporting reasons isn’t easy. The objector is really the only one who can make that determination, but you can support him or her by offering that possibility, e.g. “I wonder if there are really two objections here; one about how it will constrain your Finance role, and another about creating confusion over which role will handle reimbursements?”

4. Refocus on the Objector, not Just the Objection

Sometimes integration becomes messy because someone other than the objector is pushing to get their ideas accepted. This may be because they felt a similar tension and, as a model participant, they did the right thing by not raising another objection to say the same thing. But it’s possible the objections were slightly different and now in integration, the would-be-objector feels frustrated the discussion isn’t dealing with the real issue. To deal with this, make sure the person’s initials are next to their objection on the scratchpad and refocus attention on them. Second, reassure any would-be-objector, “Your contributions are welcome, but right now we are only solving this person’s objection. If you still have an objection after we finish this integration, please raise it in objection round #2.”

5. Look for Ways to “Punt”

Sometimes you don’t even need to understand what went wrong or why the discussion is so hard and confusing. Sometimes you just need to recognize that it is hard and confusing. With that in mind, one solution may be to create a new role to figure the whole mess out. This is effectively like punting the issue downfield, but it’s a great way to break a logjam (e.g. “What about a new role with an accountability for figuring all of this out?”) For example, a role proposes a policy to lower prices by 10%, but another role objects. They go back and forth trying to figure out what percentage will work (3%, 5%, 15%?), but they simply don’t have enough data in the room. So, instead of even trying to solve that problem, just propose a role with an accountability like, “Defining pricing models for services.” This is especially useful for HR-type issues (e.g. hiring, firing, onboarding, etc.) because newly-practicing-organizations must translate these processes and standards into proper governance, yet they often lack the knowledge to do it effectively on the spot.

6. The Proposal may be Indigestible

While it’s rare to have 4 or more valid objections, those rarities almost always occur in response to big proposals. Four parts. Combining two sub-circles. Eliminating a domain. Moving and rephrasing several policies. That’s a lot for an entire meeting, much less one proposal. There are several curious reasons why this happens, but the impact is obvious — the entire meeting comes to a standstill. If the group somehow makes it through clarifying questions, reactions, and objections, then they usually only have a few minutes left for integration and then there is little you can do. The meeting is almost over and it’s not likely you’ll pass any governance, so instead cut your losses and help the proposer break things down (usually after the meeting). Even though it may feel like one tension, ask, “Can you find any authentic way to break this tension down into smaller ‘sub-tensions?’” This can be particularly helpful for people who, by nature or temperament, let small issues bounce off them and don’t feel enough tension to motivate them to propose something until a deep pattern emerges. In those cases, reviewing the specific examples of the tension and ways each individual piece can be solved may provide a pathway forward.

Alternatively, it’s also possible the deep and complex pattern only makes sense as one tension (i.e. You can’t understand an avalanche by looking at each snowflake), but that doesn’t necessarily equate to a complex solution. For example, even if you have a broad tension like, “We aren’t meeting our customers’ needs,” you could actually propose something like, “New Policy: No role may serve customers.” That would certainly solve the tension. There would be no customers to let down. Of course, you may also go out of business and others would certainly object to it, but the point is you could more easily integrate those objections. So, ask, “What radical solution would completely eliminate this issue for me?” and see what happens. You might even call this rule-of-thumb, “Propose bad ideas,” and trust that objections will ensure all the important stuff you broke gets fixed.

The End

As groups get more elegant in articulating solutions via governance, integration gets easier. Until then it can be painful. In general, stuckness in integration is caused by doing too much too fast. To solve the problem, go back, slow down, and get clear. One. Step. At. A. Time. Remember, when it comes to passing governance, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”