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What Can a School Teach Us about Organizational Agility?

Sarah Lozanova | Thursday August 28th, 2014 | 6 Comments

Editor’s Note: This is the final post in a series of three on dynamic governance, a new way to run either for-profit companies or nonprofit organizations.

governance Rainbow Community School is a private alternative school in Asheville, North Carolina, serving children from preschool through eighth grade. Lessons and staff meetings begin with centering – giving an opportunity to turn inward to find wisdom and personal power. The school uses positive discipline, an approach that builds self-esteem and empowers children to develop self-control and responsibility.

Although the school has incorporated holistic education throughout its 35-year history, the management hasn’t always been as cohesive as it is today. “When I came in 2007, the school was 30 years old, had been through a low point or two, and was definitely in one of the lower points in its history,” explains Renee Owen, executive director of the school. “It was struggling for a few years … The board was a managing board and the executive director didn’t have clear power. The board didn’t think the executive director was competent and there was a lot of toxicity.”

Four years ago, a parent urged Owen to look into dynamic governance. “John Buck [consultant and CEO of The Sociocracy Consulting Group] came and did an introduction to dynamic governance for a few of us and we were really intrigued and inspired. We decided to pilot it with the faculty. I couldn’t believe how quickly it transformed everything.”

Dynamic governance is a method of governance and decision-making in which authority for policy decisions is delegated to small groups — called circles — with distinct aims and domains. Every voice in a circle is heard when creating policies, and there are opportunities for employees at all levels to give feedback — making an organization more adaptable and responsive to change. In many organizations, this creates synergy that results in higher-quality decisions and greater agility.

agile

This figure shows a simplified version of Rainbow Community School’s circle structure. Each of the green circles has subcircles (only three are shown, in yellow), and some of those have further subcircles (not shown). The overlapping of circles indicates double-linking, meaning that two people are full members of both circles. The double-linking allows for flow of information and ideas bottom-up as well as top-down. Overall coordination happens in the General Circle.

Dynamic governance helped the school to undertake difficult tasks, such as rebranding and renaming the school. “With dynamic governance, you can propose an idea and people can make the idea better,” says Owen. “My experience is that things move more quickly, and people can really flesh out ideas. In addition, you can pilot an idea and try it out for a couple weeks.”

In dynamic governance, the hierarchy within a circle temporarily dissolves for gathering feedback and creating policy, but the hierarchy is intact for daily operations (see diagram below). “Hierarchies are very efficient,” explains Owen. “If there is an emergency, the person on top issues orders. Dynamic governance doesn’t throw out the baby with the bath water. When you need hierarchy, it’s still there.”

Feedback is another valuable aspect of dynamic governance, where input is gathered throughout the levels of the organization. “There’s a feedback loop of lead-do-measure,” explains Buck. “You sit back and make everyone equivalent through consent decision-making and ask, ‘How are we doing? Is this the policy we need to accomplish our aim?’ You can get feedback because the hierarchy is broken down.”

business leadership

The getting-things-done hierarchy temporarily dissolves and all voices are equivalent when the circle meets to gather feedback and create policy in the context of the group’s aim. They return to the hierarchical structure for daily operations.

This feedback can make organizations more responsive to customer needs, employee concerns, the economic climate, environmental regulations and business conditions. “Once you get feedback, you get non-linear behavior. If you’re getting feedback from your employees and customers, you can get continuous change that may affect what you deliver. Introducing feedback makes possible a very responsive system.”

Before dynamic governance was used at Rainbow Community School, Renee Owen spent an excessive amount of time in meetings and managing miscellaneous tasks, such as planning celebrations and ensuring safe playground equipment. John Buck asked her to list all the tasks for which she was responsible, and then the entire staff used consent decision-making to distribute all the non-leadership items to other people.

“Dynamic governance made my job a lot more pleasant and I get a lot more done,” she explains. “It hasn’t decreased my work hours, but it has decreased the time I spend in meetings and I’ve been able to delegate more.” This frees her to focus more on longer term strategic issues. “Everything happens so much more quickly and runs so much better now.”

Buck says, “I have seen Rainbow Community School and for-profit companies alike increase their ability to adapt to changing conditions and respond to the market quickly as a result of adopting dynamic governance.”

The Rainbow Community School’s difficult period has passed. The school is once again thriving and achieving major goals that seemed unobtainable before adopting dynamic governance.

“We went from a small private school struggling financially to being full with a wait list, having to turn away dozens of students and doubling the size of our campus,” she says. “We’ve done a lot in four years. I don’t know how we could have possibly done that without dynamic governance. It’s beyond what I thought was possible.”

Upper photo courtesy of Rainbow Community School

Lower Two Figures courtesy of Sheella Mierson of The Sociocracy Consulting Group

Editor’s Note: The location of the Rainbow Community School was added to this post in response to a comment below. 


▼▼▼      6 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Diana Leafe Christian

    Thank you for this article. Sarah, did you not mention the city where Rainbow Community School is located on purpose? My understanding of journalistic writing is to give the who/what/where of the topic is usually included in the first paragraph or so. And since your article series seems really well written, I assume you know journalistic style well and you had a reason to leave it out. (So I won’t mention the city, which is where I live too, if Rainbow Community School or Triple Pundit doesn’t want the school’s location revealed. But it does seem a bit mysterious.

  • Sarah Lozanova

    Diana- It wasn’t a strategic omission. The school is located in Ashville, NC.

    • Renee Charney

      Great article, Sarah. Thank you for providing this example of how an educational system can shift from an impermeable, stiff structure to a culture of dynamic agility. I will hold onto this as I scope my PhD research looking into how organizational learners are able to build their adaptive and agile muscles when working within an environment lead and enabled by rhizomatic principles (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhizome_%28philosophy%29, for more). Your article maps quite well with my thinking. Thank you!

  • Wendy

    Do you think the positive discipline that you mentioned compliments dynamic governance?

    • Renee Owen

      Great question! When I came on as CEO at Rainbow, the school had been using Positive Discipline for several years, but there was no structure that gave the students a voice outside of their own class meetings. With Dynamic Governance, students will now also double link and be represented on the General Circle.

  • Sarah Lozanova

    From my knowledge of positive discipline, it gives children a voice in problem solving during class meetings. This can really compliment the “culture” of dynamic governance, because it doesn’t work for stakeholders to passively witness problems.