Complex company, small team

Hi all,

:wave: from Belgium

I think we fit quite nicely in what is described in chapter “6.6 Sociocracy in tiny groups”. But I’m looking for some more inspiration to unblock us.

We are a small IT services company and I’m the founder. We went through a kind of rough patch some years ago. This lead to our team becoming much smaller (12 > 6). Another side effect of this period is that we ended up with everybody doing everything, which is no longer maintainable. And we had adopted quite some sociocratic org principles (mostly based on S3) that washed away over time.

Things are going great again since last year. However, today we have quite some complexity in our services. We’re probably doing too much for the size of the current team, especially from a cognitive point of view. We decided we needed renewed clarity, more separation of duties (not everybody doing everything) and a foundation we could support our growth with.

We started determining domains and aims again. Based on that we came up with a general circle, with some roles and 3 sub-circles. To our minds this seems to be the only ways to create the cognitive separation and give people the mental space to focus (and grow) again.

However, having such so ‘many’ circles scares us: governance overhead, people still being part of too many ‘contexts’. In addition, most people are not interested anymore in participating at the GC level anymore. We think this is due to the fact that people doing everything tired us. They prefer to focus on an area, which is ok for me.We already decided to have single linking for now to keep things more simple.

I’m looking for challenging questions, insights in how other small teams with similar challenges have tackled this and any other advice you may have. What about people being in multiple circles? Governance overhead?

Thank you!

Frederik.

1 Like

Thanks for asking such a neat question :slight_smile:

Governance overhead is real - but there’s a question sometimes about efficiency:
Is it more efficient to have a meeting and start off in the right direction on the same page, or more efficient just go for it, have it be mess in 5 directions and then figure it out?

There’s some balance in the middle and it depends on the team, their aptitude, and many factors. The great thing is, even within the framework, there are so many details that can be tweaked:
duration of meeting, content of meeting, style of meeting…

Implementation and miniatous of practices are always an ongoing endeavor, especially with new people, but even with old folks. Sociocracy is a feedback based system, that can grow and change and improve, but your agreements are only as good as you keep them, and the feedback only gets used when collected and put to use.

Your organization might benefit from joining a Community of Practice (CoP). SoFA will be starting a new general monthly Community of Practice meeting in August (stay tuned!) and there’s of course the CoP forum, which might bring the conversation to a next level and will tie into the monthly meetings. It’s a great way to keep the ongoing practice of implementation/maintenance alive, along with other ongoing education for organizations like the Empowered Learning Circle for facilitation and Sociocracy Basics for groups. You might check out SoFA’s Organizational Memberships.

I notice that with small teams and relatively small and complex projects, that people just have to wear more hats. Each hat is smaller - but the cognitive separation is still helpful for me, especially in meetings. It helps me know what we’re focusing on and when to get into what details. It can keep projects moving, but still afford space for the big picture when it’s needed.

There are phases and cycles in organizations - different levels of attention (high level concepts, or low level details, etc.) needed for different phases.

There’s questions about growth as well. Is growth desirable? What is a sustainable size? As a small complex company that’s overloaded, is that because you need more people to accomplish your aims? In the entrepreneurial world it’s often acknowledged that one of the pain points of new endeavors is growth and scaling. Sometimes just success alone can kill a company that can’t scale. But not all organizations need to scale. Sometimes they can just sit in their niche at just the right size. What’s your company’s ideal size? Is that ideal a match for the aim and the other factors?

Not every phase, not every company, etc. is a match for every person. I’ve seen some people be very overwhelmed by multiple hats and lots of change. Other people love it! Some people navigate the endless todo lists with ease, managing to prioritize and get things done, while others need a different way of working with more explicitly realistic task loads. These things are all a part of company culture.

Really all of this is highly dependent on the situation. Perhaps some more specific and special attention would be worthwhile :slight_smile:

I’m curious - what’s your organization’s ownership model? Is it a coop? nonprofit? what’s the focus of the work?

You might be experiencing “Overwhelmed” Nodes within this model of When Collaboration Fails and How to Fix It

Overwhelmed Nodes

Issue

Team members cannot keep up with the collaborative demands placed upon them, leading to insufficient time for work, inefficient decision-making, excessive compromise, lower engagement, and ultimately burnout.

Drivers

  • Group growth that surpasses the limits of team and work design.
  • Ineffective meeting and communication norms.
  • Lack of effective collaborative workload metrics.
  • Fear of making independent decisions or of being left out.
  • A culture of overinclusion — both within the team and within the larger organization.

Solutions

  • Redesign the group’s structure and work.
  • Define and respect roles and responsibilities.
  • Determine the impact-to-effort ratio of new activities, and empower team members to say no.
  • Adopt and practice meeting and communication discipline.

In sociocratic terms

  • Define roles when there isn’t capacity yet to fill a full circle. The circle that has defined the role will decide and adjust that role’s aims and domains, but the role holder has full decision making power in its domain which allows that function to be executed quickly. I hold the internal comms operational role in my organization so I make decisions with input and feedback but don’t need to wait on full circle meetings to take action.
  • Not everything needs to be a full circle meeting. My team often creates small subsets of people who dive into the details of a project or who create a proposal to then bring back to the full circle for feedback then consent.
  • Have a robust flow of information / internal comms system so that people continue to be aware of each other’s work and can sense when collaboration is necessary. My team uses Slack and posts a meeting summary after each meeting + will post proposals for asynchronous feedback. We know what each other are working on even if we don’t meet all together.
  • Use the consent to agenda process to really figure out which agenda items go where and requires the participation of whom.
  • Embrace prioritizing and saying no!