“Practicing Holacracy takes energy, but in exchange we get a chance to develop at levels that we previously hadn’t even been aware of”

Today we are talking to Stijn Nieuwendijk. Stijn is one of the first people that started creating Valsplat’s UX over a decade ago. Besides being a user experience specialist, he enjoys various types of cuisines and blogging about them. It is easy to listen to Stijn’s stories as he creates a visual picture for us of the way Valsplat used to be and the way it is now. He used to have a senior position in the company. He walks us through the changes that have taken place throughout the implementation process and, as he admits, the very beginning was not easy and he himself struggled with accepting all the components of Holacracy.

Beginner’s skepticism — Holacracy language, rigid rules, formality and more.

“When we decided to adopt Holacracy, I was afraid of the structure and the language it would bring in. For a while, I kept myself at a distance and tried to figure out my stance. I was mostly observing and it took me a while to start participating. I was excited about the general idea, but at the same time, the formality and strict, rigid rules that Holacracy entails kind of scared me. At some point, I started to appreciate the reason behind each aspect of the system and was able to see that, taken as a whole, it all makes sense. It helps me and my colleagues to make decisions, to put plans into action and get where we want to go in an effective way. In the end, my mind turned from skepticism to constructive evaluation of what the system means for us.”

From a senior position to a ‘master of power sharing’

“Not being a senior executive actually takes some of the pressure off me; the more I can delegate, the happier I am. Before Holacracy, I tried to encourage people to make decisions, I tried to be empowering, but I was not able to fully embrace the idea. Holacracy really helped me distribute the work. It was such a great feeling to be sharing the decision-making power. We have an amazing bunch of people here and I know that, thanks to our new system, everyone is now getting a fair chance to contribute, develop and grow.”

“…everyone is now getting a fair chance to contribute, develop and grow”

Mistakes and speed of learning

“Everyone here knows that making a mistake is not a big deal. We make a mistake, we learn from it and move on. We have the same attitude towards our clients; we encourage them to adopt similar mindset regarding mistakes. I think that Holacracy might have enriched the results we get from our approach. It feels like we have sped up the process of learning from our mistakes. We move on faster than we used to. In the past, we had plans, discussions and so on. But things used to get stuck. Now, when we encounter a mistake, we sort of keep asking ourselves: what is the matter with this? What is the next step? What do you need to move on?

Problems or items that need attention?

“We look at problems differently now. We see them not as problems, but as items that need attention. They may become a problem if we ignore them. I think that Holacracy provides a new mindset, as well as tools to support it. In terms of problems that come up, tactical meetings are crucial. Basically, our tactical meeting is a general mixture of yeses and noes, some items that need attention and role issues that may be presented to get input from others in order to move forward. Because we are now having tactical meetings on a regular basis, with the Holacracy system in place, these issues will simply not get a chance to run into problems, to grow, to get under our skin and become a source of frustration.

Another level of development

“You know, practicing Holacracy requires a lot of energy. It does feel good to be able to make your own decisions about actions and projects, but at the same time, this means that you have to think more; you have to put more energy into your work. I think that this is a vital part of Holacracy and I think that, generally speaking, this part helps us. It makes us grow into our roles. I truly embrace not only what I do but also why I do it. Holacracy takes energy but in exchange, it gives everyone a chance to develop at levels that previously we had not even been aware of.”

“I think that people contribute more now, simply because it does not take much to contribute! If you have an idea, with Holacracy it is so easy to get it into the system and turn it into a concrete action.”

Pick your battles: raising our awareness

“Some years ago I worked at a company that used a hierarchical system. I did not feel comfortable there. The way we worked, top-down, did not energize me at all. The situation ended up with me leaving my job. One of the things I find particularly interesting in Holacracy is what I call the chance to pick your battles. I pick projects and actions that matter to me and that I truly want to be a part of. There are so many other areas that I am not interested in and, even more importantly, not particularly good at! We have a great team here at Valsplat; so many creative and talented people. Some of my teammates took parts of my previous duties, simply because they are more skilled at them or more interested in doing them. Holacracy allows us to share work in the most effective way. In the end I picked my battles, so now I am contributing within the areas where I am sure I can move us forward.”

“One of the great things Holacracy did for our team: it made it clear what are the real focus points of our work.”

Articulation of our work and relationships

“A lot of the actions our team performs now are, of course, the same as in the past. What is not the same is the level of awareness of our actions. From my observations I can see that people, including myself, pay more attention to what we actually do. In my mind, a big part of becoming aware touches upon articulation of our work. Before Holacracy, a lot of things were vague, sometimes even contradicting and this has changed dramatically. Relationships are another part of increased awareness. Now I know what my peers are occupied with and they know what my responsibilities are. We understand who is accountable for what and we can rely on our system, because all of that is so clear.”

Purpose: before and after Holacracy

“You know, it feels a bit strange to realize and admit it now, but the truth is, we never really discussed our purpose at Valsplat before; we only had a vague image, a general idea. This shift, I feel, is one of the most crucial for our company. In just a few months, we have transformed from having no discussion about the purpose of the company to having a general company purpose and circles and roles that are aligned with that purpose. I think it is really cool that the purpose has become sort of an anchor point; it makes me question my actions and projects. This is one of the most valuable changes that Holacracy has brought to us: alignment to the purpose and awareness of it.”

“I think it is really cool that the purpose has become sort of an anchor point; it makes me question my actions and projects.”

From purpose to decision-making

“I am quite sure we are making more decisions since adopting Holacracy. Because of our clarified purpose, making decisions has become easier and we can use the collective power of individual minds. We were never a hierarchical company in the traditional sense, but we did have dependencies. Several people held the senior and mid-level positions and, of course, there were our two founders. Right now, everything feels like a shared space within an order that Holacracy brings in. Space for wisdom, for creativity and for decision-making.”

Meetings: finding the right balance

Before. “We used to have some meetings, but not on a regular basis. When we did have them, they seemed unproductive. In my opinion, we should have met more frequently. It was always great to see everyone in a room, discussing, listening and so on. In my mind, one thing was lacking though: important matters never made it to the table!”

Now. “Our meetings are structured, important stuff is discussed and I am sure that each time we get together, our work moves forward.”

Danger. “As good as the meetings are, it concerns me a bit that half of every Monday might be spent on them. I see this as a possible danger. However, one of main traits of Holacracy is flexibility. The rules allow me to be flexible and attend the meetings whenever I feel I need to, simply because there are some points I want to share or I feel a tension that I want to solve.”

‘ Wait a second… we had this idea before! What happened with that?!’

Two examples of decision-making: previous and present practice

“I think that the values we already had are easier to put into practice as the basis of our day-to-day activities. I think that, in general, Holacracy also provides a sense of freedom to people who previously were dependent on others. I see that people are generally getting more satisfaction from their work. People take their areas of expertise and their roles seriously and now really put energy into them. Just to be clear, we did have initiatives before and we invested a lot of energy too, but somehow it always got stuck. I can’t really explain why, but let me give you an example:

There was a meeting. We had a brainstorming session about our internal affairs. Everyone was participating, giving ideas, opinions and insights. But all the talking was followed by very little action. The ideas we had sort of faded away. Sometime after this meeting we had another session. Someone come up with something similar and another person said, ‘Wait a second… we had this idea before! What happened with that?!

So, you see, this is how it used to be: a lot of good ideas, a lot of brainstorming, but very little action. Now the situation looks different.Holacracy is an extremely tactical tool; it helps people check in with ideas and turn them into tangible results, be it a new system, a new deliverable or a new service. I think that this is very gratifying and we have seen already the first results of that. Here is one of the outcomes:

We adopted a new way of creating proposals for clients. During our tactical meeting, one of the roles presented an idea to improve our proposals. During the same meeting, we adopted it. Because of the way tactical meetings work, everything went very smoothly. In general, the lead time for making decisions has been shortened quite a bit.”

“It is such a great feeling — being able to see clearly what we want to achieve as a team and being able to see my own place in this bigger picture. I know what I want to achieve for this company and for myself. I can combine these two on my way to achieving my own goals as well as Valsplat’s success.”

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