I ask a lot from my work-focused environments. I lay the blame fully on my dad, who co-founded an award-winning company in the 1970s and cruelly embedded the expectation that a living wage alongside a meritocratic, vibrant, innovative, and fun working environment was the organisational norm (thanks, Dad). Through my childhood experiences, the foundations of my personal preferences for a work-focused environment were forged.
A while back I was invited to write a piece for the Nestr blog reflecting on experiences as a newish partner in Nestr, a holacracy-governed organisation. Sitting down to write it, I found that I was noodling myself in loops. Every experience I tried to hold up and examine felt context-less without an acknowledgment of the personal preferences that flavoured my experiences, which also felt flat without sharing the context and previous experiences that birthed those preferences.
Working primarily in the DAO and web3 sector, where we are normalising polywork (working in and with multiple workplaces as freelancers and team members), I join or work alongside new teams and organisations regularly and have become aware of how much information gathering I do in these new environments, utilising both observable impact and felt experience to judge whether my preferences going to be met here: from how decisions are made, to how work is organised, to how people relate with each other.
I imagine that’s what many of us are doing in a new work-focused environment: observing, noticing, feeling, looking for evidence that our personal preferences will be met or not. We can pretty accurately judge whether an organisation achieves its set goals. We can pretty accurately judge whether there’s a void between the intentions of an organisation and how it lands in the world. We can pretty accurately hold up an organisation’s shared values, or north star, or principals, and judge whether the organisation seems to be on course. But when it comes to the question ‘is this the right work-focused environment for me?’, it’s all personal preference. Not only that but the preferences we hold now could best be held with the awareness that they will likely change over time and can be usefully challenged.
I could easily go down eternal rabbit holes of personal fascination with the reasons for my preferences but we all have better things to do that trace my inner world through noodling loops of context and personal insight from childhood to now. Instead, let’s look at the impact of these preferences.
Holding Both Things As True
What’s really fascinating when it comes to reflecting on my experiences at Nestr is that two things are true at the same time: Nestr exists separate from my preferences and at the same time it is formed by my preferences.
Nestr is its own ecosystem. Its own entity. It would exist regardless of whether I knew of it or was a partner in it. Yet, at the same time, Nestr is the sum of all the preferences of partners like me. People chose Holacracy as Nestr’s foundational governance system. People layered Nestr with agreements and norms (unintentionally or intentionally, explicit or implicit). Someone instigated Nestr and chose its form in the world. Without people to energise Nestr roles and to care about it as an organisation, it wouldn’t exist. (Although this might soon not be true; perhaps Nestr will one day exist in a metaverse somewhere, no humans needed).
Holding both these things as true - that organisations are separate from our preferences and formed of our preferences - gives us, as organisational participants, the opportunity to check in on what’s right for an organisation beyond our personal preferences (my heart swelled when I read about placing an empty chair in meetings so the perspective of the organisation can be listened to) and the opportunity to examine how each of us are influencing and shaping an organisation through our preferences.
The Shape of Meeting Each Other
Beyond the personal connection with one of Nestr’s partners, the gut feeling that Nestr was the right next step for me, and the opportunity to have a lived experience of Holacracy, it was visiting Nestr’s tactical meetings that really drew me in. What lightness I left the meetings with! What a joy to be witnessing the personal and group self-awareness and group-awareness and meeting norms that enabled adult-to-adult relating. Sharing tensions with full ownership, so mitigating the drama triangle; the phrase ‘did you get what you need?’ that gently places responsibility on us to understand for ourselves what we need and take ownership of asking for it; facilitation that will bring someone’s attention back if they’re not directly responding to what someone’s asked: all of this and more pulled me in.
I love that ease, that ownership of needs. The directness. A space without games. I come out of spaces like that trusting that people will take responsibility for what they said they would and trusting that they were upfront and clear about their needs and opinions, and I love the effectiveness with which such ease and ownership moves an organisation forwards.
At the same time, there’s a norm that has struck me as unsettling - and concerning- since I arrived: beyond the tactical meetings, I don’t always know what to expect of Nestr’s members, either within their roles or outside of their roles, and I don’t truly understand how Holacracy is being implemented within Nestr because apart from being able to read through the dense Holacracy constitution (I haven’t) there aren’t any co-created agreements that I can read or consent or object to.
The advice given me for navigating Nestr is ‘just do things until you break something’; and while I imagine/sense this comes from an intention to liberate partners from norms like seeking permission or not having full autonomy to direct our own experiences, it’s like being asked to play a football game without knowing the rules or what to expect from the other players and being reassured that the referee and the other players will ‘let me know’ when I’m breaking the rules. This means getting a whistle blown at me occasionally out of the blue (which feels harsh) or bumping into people (which could have been avoided). It also stops me from being a really good football player or team player, since the others know better than me what the game is.
It ultimately leaves me feeling that I cannot rest assured in my own autonomy, since I don’t have direct access to learning the agreements and norms and therefore don't always understand how to get what I need, and a bit frustrated and sad that I might not best be utilising my skills to help us be a better team. It also worries me that a norm like this engenders unhealthy power dynamics through unintentional information withholding and not having clear ways to consent or object to norms. This makes me feel a little psychologically unsafe.
We’re Not Alone Here
There’s another tension I feel that is hard to distinguish from the above: an emphasis on the individual to navigate Nestr and to gather in the information needed to usefully navigate roles, Holacracy, and Nestr norms. I wonder if this is a preference of mine, to have information that I can self-navigate through as opposed to rely on another to give me or point me towards, but again it seems to make more sense to me, from an organisational design perspective, to have self-navigable information. What if someone isn’t available to give me the information I need, when I need it? Or if it is made available to me in a way that doesn’t quite match how I take information in?
This sensitivity to whether information is easily self-navigable or not likely comes from my time in DAOs, experiencing the negative impacts of badly-designed information pathways for new members at both a personal level (feeling disempowered and unable to find a way into being a useful and satisfied member) and at an organisational level (seeing how this hinders the goals of diversity and inclusivity and individual autonomy that most DAOs aspire to). Not that I think that Nestr’s design is bad - I think it likely falls to Nestr being a small team right now and the current team members needing different things from Nestr to navigate it than someone with my way of processing information or my preferences needs.
Yet, there’s also something wonderful here in Nestr, a norm of hearing and exploring tensions like this, an open invitation to explore whether a tension is personal, organisational, or both. A commitment to consciously unravelling group and organisational dynamics, even when that partner doesn’t personally see or experience the tension being held up by another. Nestr’s partners engender a norm of sharing what’s alive in us and what's alive between us (my happy place), and reflecting, examining, and listening to new perspectives.
I’m very much in love with this norm because it leads to the kind of psychological safety in groups that I inspire to when reading research like that in The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, where he shows that psychological safety leads to teams and organisations that very much match my preferences: innovative, lively, effective, evolving, and able to hold dissent.
What Grows Here?
It both worries and fascinates me that I can’t figure out whether the cultural and operational norms within Nestr are given rise by the Holacracy governance framework or whether it has no bearing on these norms at all. I find myself with many unanswered questions, including: would I find some of the norms in Nestr in another Holacracy-governed organisation? All of them, or none at all? When I hear from some of Nestr partners that Holacracy cannot influence norms, that Holacracy doesn’t care about how we energise roles or how we organise ourselves, the question also arises: is a separation of governance frameworks and cultural norms possible?
The impression I get from Nestr’s partners (at least the ones that I’ve heard express their thoughts on this) is the sense of Nestr not as a living system that is intricately weaved with its people, formed of a network of interrelated and interdependent systems, structures, and relationships, but an alien, a machine, completely removed from the warm-blooded human beings that spark(ed) Nestr and shape(d) Nestr.
Even though there seems to be a shared sense in Nestr that organisations that adopt Holacracy need a relational layer alongside it (i.e. governance alone will not create a thriving organisation), I am still left with the sense that how these Nestr partners experience organisations on the whole is somewhat different to how I do: that of organisations as living systems, with governance and organisational systems inseparable from us humans (the relational weave). To me, the first two are lungs that bring life to the whole organism, humans as the oxygen it breathes. Or, that Holacracy and Nestr’s relational weave are the electrical signals running up and down every root of the Nestr tree, a tree deeply rooted in a living ecosystem.
But perhaps this version I hold of Nestr, of any organisation, is simply a reflection of how I connect with the world, of how I prefer to experience the world around me. This preference, for organisations to be understood as living systems, is no better or worse, no more right or wrong, than anyone else’s perspective. In the same way that Holacracy isn’t better than Sociocracy, or Sociocracy better than Holacracy. It’s all personal preference.
I’m deeply fascinated by what we can learn about what works well and what doesn’t work for all the different goverance options, and I’m deeply curious what organisations will become in the future, what Holacracy and Sociocracy and S3 and DAOs will evolve into. As challenging as it sometimes is, I’m loving settling into being a Nestr partner. I'm finally having a lived experience of Holacracy, and I’m excited by the insights and new ideas this lived experience of Holacracy will bring me. These current explorations, these future imaginings, feels full of life and possibilities.
So, a genuine thanks, Dad, for shaping my preferences. For shaping me into the kind of person that asks a lot from my work-focused environments, that holds curiosity about the systems I’m in, that holds high expectations of what our organisations might give us access to and help us achieve, and that holds the stubborn belief that joyful, effective, vibrant, fun, and innovative workplaces with living wages should be the norm. I hardly ever use the word should; but here, I prefer to.
Anna-Marie Swan has been a Nestr partner since June 2022 and has been fascinated by organisational design, strategy, and facilitation for about 7 years. Since spring 2021, Anna-Marie has been working mostly in and with regeneration-focused DAOs and web3 projects to support them with group facilitation and organisastional design.