A Community Has The Right to Self-Determination

The Market Basket supermarket chain has refused the formal authority of its owners, and given its allegiance to the leader it trusts and prefers. When I say the “supermarket chain has refused”, I am referring not to the legal entity but to the community of workers that brought that legal identity to life. That community has done the right thing; what’s needed now is a governance structure that recognizes the community’s rights.

From BoingBoing.net on July 30th 2014, a summary by BoingBoing reader MiketheBard:
“[…] Market Basket, a New England supermarket chain that Consumer Reports named the 6th best in the country, has been all over the news in the Northeast for the last couple months.

After a long family feud, the majority stockholders fired their cousin, longtime CEO Arthur T DeMoulas. He had built the business on low prices, high wages, and ZERO company debt- All employees get profit sharing and a livable wage, and many have been with the company 20, 30, even 50 years.

Arthur T. was replaced with the former president of Radio Shack, with an evident goal of strip mining the wealth from the company–raising prices, cutting benefits, loading up with debt, and selling off real estate–in order to pay out higher stock dividends to the controlling shareholders.

The employees revolted. Top executives walked off the job and picketed in front of headquarters. Employees from managers to baggers are using their vacation time to protest outside stores. 68 out of 71 managers have pledged to quit unless Artie T is reinstated or allowed to purchase the remaining 51% of the family-owned company. Deliveries have stopped and twitter is full of photos of completely bare shelves. […]”

These employees are doing the right thing, and the majority stockholders are in the wrong. While I do not believe that the legal entity of a company is a person (contrary to current US law), I do believe that communities are like people and should be treated like people. To give external shareholders unilateral control over the life of a working community is wrong; it is not as bad as slavery, but it is wrong for the same reasons that slavery is wrong. Most corporate governance is geared toward injustice of this kind: giving a few the ability to control the many, to remove their means of livelihood, destroy their lives’ work, sever the relationships they have built, and squander their pensions.

A moral system of corporate governance must respect the right of a community to self-determination, aligned with a clear shared purpose. This does not mean that a community’s leaders should be powerless; on the contrary, those people a community chooses to lead it should be handed as much power as necessary to ensure business is done effectively. This power should be a delegation, however — it is held on behalf of the community. Self-determination also does not mean that shareholders, even external shareholders, are powerless. They should have a voice with exactly as much weight as any other stakeholder group (including employees) in the top-level governance of the corporate entity which provides legal structure to a working community.

When you are considering how this might apply to your own company, ask yourself this: “Do I want the power to destroy, or the power to create?” Current legal power gives majority owners the ability to destroy their companies, as we see in the Market Basket example, but the ability to create is fragile. It comes only with the enthusiastic engagement of employees (and customers, and investors, etc.). By adopting governance which constrains your power as a majority owner or chief executive, you force yourself to respect the voice of your working community. That respect buys engagement in a way that nothing else can. By giving up the unilateral power to destroy, you gain the power to create, working with the community you serve.

If you want to take practical steps to act on the ideas here, I suggest looking into Sociocracy. Although employee ownership (including worker co-operative structures) moves in the right direction, the best available model is the sociocratic one, in which multiple stakeholder groups have a voice in the governance of the company, and yet most decisions are made rapidly in the frontline teams where work is actually delivered. I see Sociocracy delivering on the promises made by employee ownership, providing effective particpatory management and governance to match the changes begun in an employee-ownership initiative.

I hope this is thought provoking in a useful way. What do you think?

Moving Together: Teaching the Principles of Sociocracy through Physical Play

I enjoyed leading an experiential session for the IMTA (International Movement Teachers’ Association) in early June — at the moment I’m calling it “Moving Forward Together — Experiencing the Principles of Sociocracy through Physical Play”. I’d like to share some brief rough notes with you on how that process worked; please feel free to experiment with this program and let me know what you discover. Note that if you are not an experienced Sociocracy practitioner, or you are not experienced in leading groups in movement exercises, you may not have the necessary background to make full use of this material. Please feel free to contact me with questions. [Also, I make some generalizations in my description — please forgive me if I am inaccurate in describing you!]

My plan was to work my way through each of the core principles of Sociocracy — Consent, Circles, Double-Linking, and Election by Consent — in an experiential way, with a minimum of explanation.

I started with explaining my intention with the experiential workshop, and checking whether people were willing to explore with me. Nobody was unwilling; this was our first consent decision, which I noted and celebrated. I then shared a very brief explanation of the concept of Consent in Sociocracy — the willingness to move forward together in an experiment, on the basis that there is no visible danger that will prevent us from accomplishing a shared Aim.

Without taking more than one or two questions, I asked people to get into groups of three. Each group chose a Goal, a Mover, and a Sensor. The Goal would make an animal noise, and slowly move around the room. (I asked each group to consent to the animal noise selected by the “Goal” — this was intended to symbolize the standard practice of consenting to a proposed Aim). The Mover would close her eyes, and move toward the Goal until she reached the Goal. The Sensor would stay with the Mover (perhaps touching) and say “safe” or “danger” as they went. Participants seemed to understand the instructions, and began play quickly.

As they moved, I informed them that once they caught the Goal, they would all switch roles.

After several rounds of this, I gathered people for Q and A in the large group. Predictably, people had made lots of useful discoveries. I did my best to answer questions, share my experience, and ask more questions.

Then I asked the groups of three to join together into groups of six. I gave each group of 6 a pillow. Now the pillow represented an Aim, a specific piece of value to deliver to the Goal. Each group of six was to choose a Goal by Consent. Then the Goals moved off into the room, and each team (circle) linked hands, closed their eyes, and followed. I had suggested to them they would need to call out ‘safe’ or ‘danger’ as they went, and this was essential to avoiding the various pillars and tables in the large space.

After several rounds of exploring in groups of six with some variation, I gathered people in the large group for more reflection. We explored what it was like delivering the pillow together, and how people felt when they all had their hands on the pillow, versus how they felt when only some of them did.

In any case, after a round of reflection, I asked them to double up their groups of six into groups of twelve. But before doubling up, I asked them to each elect a representative who would provide a link to the other group. I think this may have been the least useful element in the physical exploration, because I am not sure they really experienced the value of the double-link. In the future, I might try having the groups connected in different hand-holding patterns, to symbolize relationship patterns. This would clearly demonstrate that a two-person link is more robust and easier for coordination than a one-person link. In the exercise as we did it, I believe the double-link principle was mostly lost.

In any case, as they did multiple iterations of the game with the larger groups, I invited them to consider together between each round whether they wanted to make any changes to the game to make it more fun, a better learning experience, or just to help them feel more alive. This produced a variety of responses — some groups got more effective at delivering the Aim but found they were having less fun, which provoked the question for them of what their true Aim was. Several group noticed that if they consented to a new experiment quickly, they were able to spend more time playing and less time talking, even if the experiment wasn’t the one they most personally favored.

After several rounds of play in 12-person groups, I called everyone in for a final large circle discussion. I invited people to share what they learned, and reflected alongside them on our learning. The responses I heard from the group were strongly positive — they had enjoyed the playful exploration, and they felt enthusiastic about using such a dynamic system for steering their organization. The applause was warm — although not as warm as the applause following our next session, when we used the sociocratic method for electing new board members and making some policy decisions in their General Assembly. They enjoyed the experiential play, but they appreciated it even more when they saw that they could actually work this way.