Understanding Objections

Objection testing is like scientific exploration. It seems hard because it is hard.

Few aspects of Holacracy practice get more attention than objections and objection testing, but it takes time to really understand them. While there is no replacement for experience, hopefully these examples and metaphors can at least help you better organize that experience.

Note: Consider this article like, “Objections 101.” If you want something more advanced, like Objections 201, then read, “A Better Way to Test Objections.

Now to really understand objections, we first must understand what kinds of decisions are made in a governance meeting. Governance is an organization’s unique map of its current expectations, restrictions, and authorities. And I mean that literally. It’s a roadmap

Which means a proposal is a suggestion to update the roadmap. Meaning, when someone raises an objection in a governance meeting, they are saying, “I think this would be a harmful update to our map.” At which point, one might ask themselves, “How can you harm a map?” Well, if you make it inaccurate. Or confusing. Or unclear.

Meaning, when someone objects to a proposal because, “We don’t have time to do that,” one can ask, “Does a roadmap allocate time?” The answer is, “No.” A map of the United States doesn’t determine how everyone must get from New York to Virginia (or the resources any given traveler may need), it only shows pathways.

Similarly, an organization’s governance is only a map of where things can and can’t go. This is why we don’t make operational decisions in a governance meeting, because the unique function of governance is to update our map so we can move more quickly day-to-day.

This is why we say operations is working in the organization, and governance is working on the organization. For most people it’s not an intuitive distinction, but it’s an important one to grasp if you really want to understand objections.

In Holacracy, an objection is an expressed logical reason the proposal causes harm. In this context, a reason is any argument that can be evaluated purely on its logic without relying upon concrete observation or experience. For example, the argument, “I’m hungry therefore I need to eat” is logically consistent, even though you have no idea whether or not I actually feel hungry (versus a reason like, “I’m hungry therefore I need new shoes.”)

A reason simply connects the dots between a cause and an effect. This is what we mean by the Facilitator “not judging” the arguments. The Facilitator is not judging whether or not the reason matches reality, but whether the reason, as presented, is sound.

The Facilitator can’t really know whether an objection is valid or not, they can only test how things are expressed. He is not testing whether or not harm will be caused, but rather if the objector believes harm will be caused. I highlight this because it’s important to remember that ultimately the clarity of the objection is determined by the objector’s ability to articulate their tension (even if we might wish others could read our mind).

Technically speaking, any argument given by an objector is, by definition, an objection. However, a valid objection must express how the proposal (Criteria #2) would necessarily create (Criteria #3) harm (Criteria #1) to one of the objector’s roles (Criteria #4).

While each of the constitution’s validity criteria mentioned above offers a meaningful distinction and deserves its own analysis, for this overview I’m only going to focus on Criteria #1. Which reads,

a) If the Tension were unaddressed, the capacity of the Circle to express its Purpose or enact its Accountabilities would degrade. Thus, the Tension is not just triggered by a better idea or a potential for further improvement, but because the Proposal would actually move the Circle backwards in its current capacity. For the purpose of this criteria, decreasing clarity counts as degrading capacity, although merely failing to improve clarity does not.

Essentially, this means a lot of objections, as articulated by the objector, are not reasons why the map would get worse. The best way to understand this is to look at specific examples (and see if you can figure out what’s wrong with them* before reading my description):

*Warning: Raising an invalid objection is never wrong. This information is for illustrative purposes only. A practitioner should never feel pressured to raise only valid objections. Don’t ever use the following information to pre-filter your objections. Just like proposals, anything can be a starting objection.

“We need to add X to this…,” or “This really belongs on the Finance role.”

These are solutions, not problems. Remember, an objection needs to describe harm. When I come across these as facilitator, I usually say something like, “Ah, that sounds like it might be a great solution, but to what problem? I need to know, ‘What is the the problem with not doing what you suggest?’”

“I just don’t like it,” or “I disagree with it.”

There’s nothing wrong with having a strong opinion, but we aren’t looking for everyone’s agreement (i.e. consensus). When you’re at lunch with coworkers, you don’t need everyone’s agreement on what food you should order for yourself. Similarly, a proposal is a solution you are “ordering” to solve your own tension. But what if you want a tuna sandwich, but the person next to you can’t stand the smell of tuna? Ah, then your proposed order would impact them (and would be a valid objection).

“We don’t need it,” or “It doesn’t solve anything.”

These statements describe neutrality, not harm. As far as a governance meeting is concerned, a failure to improve the map is perfectly acceptable. Objections are reasons why the proposal would make the map worse than it was before the meeting started.

“Yes, it will cause harm.”

This obviously doesn’t tell us anything, but it’s surprisingly common because nervous facilitators, having missed the harm the objector initially described, tend to mechanically ask, “So, will it cause harm or is it unneeded or incomplete?” The objector, having already described harm, then tends to answer this awkward question with a flippant, “Yeah, harm.” Regardless of why it happens, this objection needs to be clarified, “What harm do you see?” or “I may have missed it — what is the harm again?”

“This isn’t the real issue.“

It’s possible there is another or more important issue we should be talking about, but it’s not our concern during the objection round. We process one proposal at a time to the exclusion of all other possible issues, knowing the objector can simply add another agenda item to process it. Imagine a surgeon, in the middle of a complicated surgery, realizes they forgot to shut the garage door. It’s something to take care of, sure. But later. In conventional meetings, agenda items are topics for the group to discuss, rather than tensions for individuals to process, so it’s a common misunderstanding. Just bring a new agenda item.

Governance is a roadmap. Objections are the expressed logical reasons. And valid objections must describe harm.

While it may take experience with Holacracy practice to really understand objections, hopefully this gives you some orientation to what they’re all about.

Read “Introducing the Holacracy Practitioner Guide” here for more articles.