Our big SHIFT: becoming a flat, roles-based team

Over the past 18 months, we’ve been exploring and transitioning to a new, flatter way of operating. We’ve been experimenting with Shift as a roles-based, self-organising, ‘leaderful’ team. Here, Louise Cooper shares what we’ve done, how it’s been going and what’s next.

Deciding to give up hierarchy and go roles-based

Over the past few years, we’ve been supporting our partners to explore which roles they can best play within complex systems to maximise collective impact. We’ve also been exploring how to work together more equitably through co-design, participatory approaches, acknowledging power dynamics and working to share and decentralise power.

These mindset shifts led us to look inward and challenge our own structure and practice. We recognised that, over time, parts of our existing hierarchical structure had been affecting the team’s sense of agency, autonomy and wellbeing. We began to ask ourselves some fundamental questions:

  • How could we decentralise decision-making within our own team?
  • How might each of us, as individuals, play our best roles alongside each other?
  • How could we more deeply embrace values of equity and autonomy?

In early 2020, we decided to start experimenting with alternative ways of running Shift. We wanted to work towards being a leaderful, self-organising team, with a structure that would distribute power and decision-making. Pretty soon Covid hit, further pushing us to decentralise as we shifted gear to work remotely and contribute to the pandemic response. Everything seemed to be leading us to forge a new way of working, both as a team and with our partners in the world.

We started talking with experts in the org change space like Emily Bazalgette, peers who’d been bravely designing new, more progressive ways of operating – like Kaleidoscope – and reading loads of books like Brave New Work. Through this, we found our way to the concept of self-management which is what we ended up experimenting with.

What’s self-management?

Self-management typically means a lack of traditional hierarchy and bureaucracy. Some call it ‘participatory leadership’, ‘collective leadership’ or ‘going horizontal’. It’s based on adult-to-adult relationships, rather than parent-child relationships. For us at Shift, self-management is characterised by three key principles:

01 Autonomy

This sits in the place of hierarchical control, concentrated power or authority. Autonomy doesn’t mean unbridled freedom, but rather trust – specifically, trusting people to manage themselves with the best interest of the organisation, themselves and others in mind.

02 Accountability

Everyone makes decisions, but not everyone is involved in every decision. We are free to make decisions about our work and accountabilities without consulting any ‘higher ups’ – as there are none. Decision-making power is distributed, but decisions are not made by majority vote. Advice- and consent-based decision making are the governing principles.

03 Transparency

Openness and transparency foster trust, fairness and initiative-taking. They are foundational for a horizontal culture. For people to actively take care of the organisation and fully engage, we treat each other as capable adults who can have access to information about what is going on. This includes financials, risk, and even salaries.

Why did we choose to experiment with self-management at Shift?

We chose to experiment with self-management largely because it felt like we were doing many elements of it already. Working with partners on projects day-to-day, our team embraced autonomy and managed themselves, albeit within the bounds of on-paper hierarchy. By mid-2019, we were already evolving beyond closed-door, top-down decision-making and were emerging as a capable group of people demonstrating leadership in different ways.

However, we still found ourselves tripping up over our traditionally hierarchical structure: team members felt a lack of agency; defaulting to decisions ‘from above’, we weren’t investing strongly in learning and development; our salaries were tied to job titles rather than our actual roles. We decided together to address these tensions and give ourselves the chance to flourish. This meant formalising a shift that was already happening, and putting the right support structure in place for it to be safe, effective and sustainable.

How did we go about it?

Embracing self-management is an experiment and ongoing process, so one thing is crucial: learning. Since we began the process, we’ve been regularly checking in with each team member to listen to what’s working and what’s not.

We also broke down the overall project of changing our operating model into component elements and worked in three-month cycles, running experiments, pausing to reflect, and then iterating at agreed milestones. Our four main activities were:

From job titles to accountability-based roles

Inspired by Holacracy, we mapped out ourselves as a roles-based organisation, meaning we each hold a set of accountabilities reflecting our skills and interests – rather than an immovable job description tied to a specific title.

From top-down to advice- and consent-based decisions

We started the practice of making decisions based on advice and consent, in relation to each of our accountabilities. This brings a lot of clarity as to who is involved in decision-making and, crucially, how.

From ‘black box’ to transparent salaries

We created a more transparent salary model, inspired by Buffer’s Salary Formula, and based on a set of visible salary bands. This involved self-reviewing our ‘mastery’ levels for each set of our accountabilities and establishing agreed processes for reviewing and increasing salaries.

From line managers to peer support and self-led learning

We removed (our patchy version of) line management and moved towards a peer support structure – supported by Enrol Yourself, encompassing a buddy system, self-led learning and reviews.

What have we learnt?

We’re still evolving, but there’s plenty that we’ve been able to learn already. Earlier this year, we were able to step back and consider how things had changed – for us as individuals, as a team, and as an organisation working with partners and collaborators. Here, we share the good, the bad and the wobbly, because even where we’ve made positive steps forward, there’s always room to grow.

  • We have more clarity in our roles and accountabilities, which gives us confidence and makes it easier to have boundaries
  • We have more autonomy and agency, so it’s easier to collaborate as adults and take the initiative – for example with developing partnerships and following our passions
  • We’re (getting) better at giving and receiving feedback, through building our skills in honest communication and tough conversations – we’ve been doing some great training with Tuff Leadership on this
  • We can support ourselves and each other as much (or more) than line managers, although sometimes experiences of stress and burnout can slip through the cracks
  • Shadows of our old hierarchy remain in some of our behaviours, like permission-seeking or taking up too much space
  • Self-management doesn’t suit everyone – we’ve found it’s not super nurturing for anyone at an early stage in their career
  • Partners may find it difficult to escalate any issues, as we don’t have ‘seniors’ to report to

Overall, we believe this transition has helped us be more authentic in how we approach our partnerships, with a focus on openness and equity. Sharing space and power more intentionally as a team has helped us commit to practising these ways of being in all our work.

What’s next?

As self-management is an ongoing experiment for us, we’ll continue to prioritise learning and adapting as we head into 2022, drawing on training and advice from peers and experts.

One important growth area for us as a team right now is around strategy. Greater autonomy in the team has meant we’ve evolved to have a really broad portfolio, so there’s now a need to come back together around a clearer, shared focus that will steer Shift’s work and impact into the future.

We love how self-management has opened up a lot of possibilities, but it works best as an operating model when there is clarity of purpose at the core. So we’re excited now to be working together on a clear, compelling re-focussed direction for Shift – keep your eyes peeled for more on this in the new year!

We’d love to hear what you think, so if you’d like to share any reflections or suggestions on our journey to self-management, please do get in touch on louise.cooper@shiftdesign.org.