The Lab

Be a dwarf, be a Giant, 
be a guinea pig.

If you want to help others settle into a new country, it helps to have lived there for some time. As we want to help organizations resettle into next:land (and not just go there on vacation), we find it essential to experiment with different next:land approaches ourselves.

That road has been pretty bumpy at times, but, at least most of the time, we learned something. And although that can sometimes feel like we’re human guinea pigs asking each other to do weird things, it helps us offer things to our clients not based only on reading that one book that one time, but based on lived experience.

So, if you’re curious to see what we’ve learned so far in our dwarfs and Giants journey, which formats have survived our stress-tests and which didn’t, read on.

Welcome home! Photo: next:pedition (c)

The 4 spaces of an organization

For a better overview we build on the “language of spaces”, a concept developed by Christiane Seuhs-Schöller. It defines four spaces of an organization:

  • The operational space: How we interact in our daily work, the roles we fill, the prioritizations we make, the content of the work we do
  • The structural space: How we structure our organization, define roles, distribute power and develop our processes.
  • The relational space: How we relate to each other as human beings in- and outside of work, our group dynamics and social patterns
  • The individual space: Each individual’s work and priorities, their skills, strengths and weaknesses, as well as how the organisation supports individual personal and professional development. Each individual’s purpose and how they integrate and balance different areas of their life, inside and outside of work.

The 4 Spaces of an Organization, on the shoulders of Christiane Seuhs-Schöller

Those spaces are usually at play simultaneously. If I have a conflict with a colleague, it can have several aspects. One might be relational, because I don’t feel understood by her. One might be structural, because our roles are overlapping and thus we’re constantly stepping on each other’s toes. One might be operational because I need a certain task from her to move forward in a project that’s important to me, but she keeps prioritizing other tasks. One might be individual because I have a pattern of being nice and accommodating for too long and only speaking up when I’m already pretty angry – which makes it harder to then enter into a constructive dialogue.
In order to solve those knotty problems we find it helpful to have structures and formats in every one of these 4 spaces, so that every aspect of a problem has the most effective way of getting solved. Solving a relational conflict tends to be a very different mode than solving a role definition conflict or a prioritization conflict. Creating a good role setup just works very differently than how you coach someone in changing their conflict patterns.

The formats that dG uses in the 4 spaces

With that out of the way, let’s dive into how dG is organized. And as with any good story, let’s start at the beginning.

Structural space

One of the founding motivations of dG was the urge to really put role-based self-organization into practice and to really get the structural part right. That meant: Purpose, role-based self-organization, and a legal structure that – as much as possible in our legal system – reflects their underlying values.

For role-based self-organization we used and still use Holacracy. This means transparent and clear roles, grouped together in circles, instead of a management hierarchy with some people at the top and some at the bottom. (Our role structure is even publicly transparent, visible on the software “Glassfrog”).

There’s no “founder” role, the four people at the start were just earlier members of the organization. There’s no difference in rights and duties between earlier and later members. No company cars for management (because there is no manager role - and there are no company cars), no personal assistants, no special spending or decision making rights.
The legal CEOs of the dwarfs and Giants GmbH & Co KG have no special decision making power beyond what is defined in their “Legal dG Representative” role. In practice this mainly means they have to sign documents that need their signature, but they have neither extra company benefits nor any special authority when it comes to budget, hiring & firing, strategy, resource allocation etc. Sascha and Matthias decided to fill that role not because it gives them status but because when you have a GmbH & Co KG you need at least one person as a legally registered CEO. Someone just had to do it.

Holacracy also means that there’s a clear, efficient process for updating our roles and decision making structures (the “Governance Process”). As we spend most of our time embedded with our clients and thus don’t have time for too many meetings, we make 99% of our Governance decisions via our communication platform Slack: Anyone can propose a change, and if after 4 days no one has objected, the proposal is accepted. The remaining 1% of Governance decisions are made in dedicated Governance meetings. But that only happens in cases where a proposal is very complex or very controversial.

Budget decisions are made in a similar way: Every member of dG who wants to spend more than 300€ in one of their roles, just has to post their intention on Slack and if after 4 days no other organization member has objected, their proposal is accepted. Below 300€ everyone can make the spending at their own discretion, no further feedback or process required. This very simple process works well enough for an organization of our size, but should we at some point need a more complex process, anyone can use the Governance process to propose a new version of how we make spending decisions. And because of the way the Governance process is structured, any proposal has a high likelihood of getting through – at least as long as it doesn’t harm the organization or moves us backwards.

Salaries are also transparent to everyone inside the organization. There’s also no project-based commission as in many other consulting companies, but all revenues come into a single pot. From this single pot, based on our salary tier assignment process, we distribute the money. The main criteria for this tier assignment are based on the skills and experiences someone brings into the organization. This means that, no, financially we’re not all equal, but there are clear and transparent reasons for those differences. 

Our legal structure functions a lot like partnership at a law firm, with about 75% of dG’s members being legal partners on eye-level in a GmbH & Co KG. Sadly, that’s still incomplete because for some roles (e.g. in accounting) this means employee contracts which gives them a different legal relationship to the organization, and – at least up until now – leads to a different salary process for them. (Which is another reason for us to currently update our salary system.) The legal system in Austria gives us very limited options to implement the principles of self-organization in our legal structure, as for example the purpose ownership structure that is gaining momentum in Germany (and which we would have liked to implement) is legally not possible in Austria. But at least self-organization and purpose are baked into our GmbH-contracts, so no founder or CEO could just one day decide to stop all that and move to a hierarchical setup.

Overview of dG’s structural setup:

  • Holacracy gives a clear process for defining and adapting roles and processes, distributing authority to where expertise lies and not concentrating it at the top. Everyone can make proposals for changing roles or processes and those proposals are accepted if there’s no valid objection. Same goes (currently) for budget decisions, but this is a process which might be adapted at a later time.
  • The same rights & duties apply to every member of the organization. Differences in decision making authority between partners come from roles they fill based on their expertise or time resources, not from special status. No company cars for management, no special decision making rights for founding members or CEOs.
  • Salaries are transparent to everyone, and differences in salary are decided based on transparent criteria in an explicit process.
  • dG’s legal structure tries to express this as much as is possible inside the Austrian legal system – which isn’t as much as we would like.

Operational Space

Our operational setup is probably much more boring than the structural. As we are an organization that mainly sells partner’s time in the form of workshop days, our internal formats are also mainly built around days. We have more operational “harbor” days about once a month in our Vienna office, where all the consulting ships that during the week sail out into the world come back to the harbor to rest & repair. By ships we mean people. It’s a metaphor. Yeah.

During the harbor days we have some operational sync meetings like in the Customer Facing Circle or the General Company Circle, we have status updates from projects that are relevant for the whole organization, we look at the monthly financial report and we have space for different ad hoc sessions. There’s a role called “master of ceremony” that receives pitches for sessions and then designs the agenda for the day.

During one of our “Harbor Days” at our community office in Vienna, celebrating the 3rd birthday of dG in 2018. Photo (c) Maria Noi

One meeting we have about every other harbor day is around our Focus Board. One of the risks of role-based self-organization is that because everyone is starting strategic initiatives based on what they individually feel passionate about, sometimes it can get a bit random and overwhelming. Especially when those individual initiatives then all need the same limited organizational resources, like marketing or design capacities, or collective time at a harbor day. So in 2019 we started a more explicit focus of consciously pitching for resources when you want to start an initiative that needs more than just your own work time. You can read more about that process in this article about our focus process: “Death by Too Many Great Ideas”.

Then we have a few formats that are more directly linked to the content of our consulting work: 

  • Creathons: Six days a year for writing down what we learned in our projects and making it available for our colleagues to use in their client work.
  • Consulting Common Ground Labs: Four days a year for learning from each other and creating stable common ground for our consulting practice.
  • Feedback Days: There’s at least one day a year for role-to-role feedbacks for everyone inside the organization, as well as one dedicated day for the consulting roles – which are called “Evolutionary Catalyst”, “Engagement Lead” and “Account Orchestrator” – to give each other professional feedback, based on our Consulting Competency Map

One part of the operational space is strategy. What’s the organization’s purpose, what is the business model and services it offers to whom and at what price point? What is the impact we want to have in the world and what are our explicit assumptions about how that actually happens? In essence: What are we doing in the world, why are we doing it and how does it pay our bills?

dG’s purpose has been clear from the beginning:

Rewriting the future of organization.
Catalyzing the evolution of wholesome organizations.

This is what we’re about, this is why we get up in the morning. And yet, as a small, highly specialized consulting firm it’s hard to live up to that purpose. Rewriting the future of one organization? Sure, hard, but doable. Acting as a catalyst for one organization’s evolution towards much more wholesomeness? Yes, ma’am! 

But rewriting the future of organization as a whole? That needs something else. In the past we had hoped that we could just write great articles in short sprints next to our consulting work. On the way to the train station, so to speak. Well, for some obscure reason this hasn’t really worked. A new strategy was needed.

That’s why we’re now putting dedicated resources into writing down what we’ve learned and producing online courses. Spreading all the knowledge and experiences we acquired into the world more broadly, instead of only our client organizations. 

And yes, our focus board process really helped us in making this decision clearly and operationalizing it with concrete time resources, instead of staying in the space of wishful thinking. 

We should really write more articles. – Yes, we should. – When do you have time for that? – Don’t bother me with such uninspiring questions.

If we have more day-to-day prioritization questions, Holacracy also gives a clear structure for making those decisions. Generally, everyone has the right to make their own prioritization decisions. You can only be overruled by a role called “Lead Link” which has the authority to decide on priorities in the circle it’s allocated to. So if you have a prioritization conflict with a colleague and you’re not able to resolve it in a bilateral dialogue, you can ask the Lead Link of the respective circle to make the call. (Although this sounds a lot like a manager, Lead Links have only about 10% of the decision making power that managers usually have. But it’s just very useful to have a clear decision making process for resolving prioritization conflicts, so it wouldn’t be useful to reduce the decision making power down to 0%.)

There’s one last format that helps us make those deeper strategic decisions: Our biannual company retreat, the Council Days. After our summer break we come together for four days and around the winter break for another two days. These days serve many different functions but the two main ones are strategic and relational. Checking in on our long-term developments and adapting our strategy if needed. And having space to come together as a community of people, deeper than is sometimes possible in our packed schedules.

The dG tribe at our Council Days in summer 2021, celebrating and preparing for our dinner-speeches: “How did the lab dwarfs and Giants help me become who I am now?”

Overview of dG’s operational space formats:

  • A clear, inspiring overarching long-term purpose gives orientation what this organization is here for
  • Harbor Days for operational synchronization
  • Regular short operational Sync Meetings in Circles, sometimes at Harbor Days, sometimes at other times
  • Clear processes for resolving prioritization conflicts
  • Focus Board Process for prioritizing strategic initiatives with regular standup-meetings (usually at Harbor Days)
  • Creathons and Consulting Common Ground Labs for codifying and sharing our learnings internally
  • Feedback Days for supporting individual mastery in our work
  • Council Days twice a year for deeper human-to-human connection and strategic alignment

”Moving like a flock of birds”: A collective morning practice at the Council Days in summer 2019, building on ancient wisdom traditions.

Relational space

The double function of the Council Days being strategic alignment as well as interpersonal connection provides a good bridge into looking at the relational space. Here the emphasis is on the humans that are part of the organization and their interpersonal relationships and dynamics.

One format we had from the very start that mainly (but not only) happens in the relational space is supervision. With dG’s background in systemic consultancy it was clear from the beginning that having this format with an external supervisor was crucial to prevent us from falling victim to our own organizational blind spots. So from the beginning we dedicated 3-4 days a year to supervision from experienced systemic consultants. 

That was and still is very helpful, but we found that something was missing: A reliable way to directly and constructively address interpersonal conflicts. In a systemic supervision the focus is usually not so much on individuals and their conflicts but more on general social and organizational dynamics. Which patterns seem functional, which don’t and what can we do to shift the dysfunctional ones. This depersonalization is sometimes really helpful because it reduces blame and looks at contributing factors to a difficult situation and how we can remedy those. But sometimes it’s also counterproductive because it can lead to a hesitancy about directly addressing each other honestly. It can strengthen a pattern that is common to many systemic consultants: Going to the meta-reflection or asking a question when a direct confrontation or a clear statement would be more helpful.

For us, the Clear the Air Approach filled that gap. We started implementing it in late 2016, mainly adding a dedicated Clear the Air space to our Council Days. This helped us have many difficult conversations, even some that led to parting ways with some members of dG. The big difference was that we were able to tackle the underlying conflicts head on, and come to difficult decisions in a way that we can still look each other in the eye, even if we have found out that working together isn’t possible anymore.

Right now our regular rhythm is a half-day Clear the Air Meeting for the whole organization three to four times a year. There we have dedicated, expertly facilitated space to clear up tensions in the relational space. That can mean resolving bilateral human-to-human conflicts or more complex conflicts involving more people. But that also means sharing deeply how everyone is doing on a personal level as well as expressing appreciation to each other. A dedicated space for all the things that can easily fall by the wayside – especially in times of pandemic-induced remote work – but which are essential for having a stable base of trust and mutual support.

We also have internal and external mediators for resolving bilateral conflicts that don’t have space in the Clear the Air Meeting. And every member of dG has at least two days of training in the Clear the Air Approach so that smaller conflicts can be much more easily resolved bilaterally. Two people every two to three years also participate in the year-long Clear the Air Facilitator Training where they learn how to facilitate difficult conversations gracefully and host Clear the Air Team Meetings. 

We still have regular external supervision, because supervision and Clear the Air Meetings complement each other nicely, but we now spend equal time on both formats, about three to four half days a year each. 

But luckily, it’s not all just having difficult conversations, we also have a role called “Party People” which organizes – surprise! – parties and fun get-togethers. Christmas Dinners. Staff outings. Boules playing in the summer. Summer dinners with embarrassing amounts of wine.

Wholesomeness is also about finding the perfect balance between three different birthday cakes… :) Photo (c) Maria Noi

And interacting as humans happens all throughout every day, in the big and small moments in-between. Checking in with each other. Sharing stories from the weekend. Supporting each other emotionally through difficult times. Making each other laugh with silly jokes. All those small daily interactions that can’t and shouldn’t be planned, but that are helped by our formats that keep the air bright and clear.

Overview of dG’s current relational space formats:

  • 3-4 half days of external systemic supervision
  • 3-4 half days of organization-wide CTA Meetings
  • Internal and external CTA facilitators for case based mediation (“CTA sessions”)
  • 2 days of CTA Approach Intro Workshop for every dG partner + access to the self-paced Clear the Air Foundations Course
  • One to two dG partners each year participate in the Clear the Air Facilitator Training
  • Party People role

Individual Space

By now you might be wondering: How does someone start working at dG and not get completely overwhelmed? The honest answer is: Everyone is at least somewhat overwhelmed at first. But everyone gets regular and intensive 1on1 support by one of the people filling the role “Development Compass”. There they get concrete support on their current challenges and how to solve the issues they face in their current work.
Every new partner also participates in all of the workshops we offer that are foundational to our way of organizing. That encompasses the 2-day CTA Intro (English workshops possible upon request) or the Masterclass for Feedback-Culture Architects. Depending on preference it can also encompass a 3-day Intro to Systemic Theory, 2-day Intro to Agile Work Practices or a 5-day group dynamics seminar (English groups available once per year).

Last but not least, we know that sometimes all this self-organization, group dynamics and conflicts can push your red buttons. For that we also have a role, the“Red Buttons Coach”, which can support in sorting through inner turmoil. Figuring out what’s a current tension with someone here and now, and what's a biographical wound that I carry that has been triggered – which needs emotional healing, independent of the current trigger.
Once you have untangled those different threads, and gotten some emotional relief, it’s much easier to then concretely define next steps for resolving the tension in the here and now, and deciding in which of the four organizational spaces it makes the most sense to start. 

  • Do you want to propose a change in our role definitions or our processes? (= structural space)
  • What do you need from another role and what do you need to request to get it? Which information do you want to give or request? (= operational space)
  • Do you want to resolve a relational conflict? Do you feel ready to do that on your own or do you need a facilitator to support that conversation? (= relational space)
  • Or is there an individual pattern you want to change? Or do you want to do something differently in the content of your work? Or maybe just gather the courage to take a decision that you’re already authorized to take? (= individual space)

The decision is all yours. 

That is the wonderful freedom, and sometimes the challenge, of being a dwarf, a Giant and your own guinea pig.

Overview of dG’s current individual space formats:

  • Every partner has the right to a dedicated Development Compass which supports them in getting aware of and resolving the issues they face in their work at dG
  • Every partner can participate in the intro workshops we host. For year-long trainings there’s a limit and a decision making process to balance individual learning needs and organizational time availability needs.
  • A Red Buttons Coach can support in sorting through emotionally difficult terrain and get to relief and clarity.

... and what about your name?

A very popular question! :) The metaphor of dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants (Latin: nanos gigantum humeris insidentes) expresses the meaning of „discovering truth by building on previous discoveries“. Although attributed to Bernard of Chartres in the 12th century, its most familiar expression in English is in Isaac Newton’s letter of 1676, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

This attitude describes our understanding of progress: Everything new is always based on the achievements and innovations of the past. The dwarves see a little further on the shoulders of the giants and thereby initiate innovation.

If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Isaac Newton

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