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Roles: Circle to Circle

By Hélène Lesterlin, with Susan Grove

At Good Work Institute, we organize our collaborative work into “Circles”. Circles function as sub-groups of the six-member GWI team; each circle is focused on a specific aspect of the organization. We have three organizational circles (Operations, Development and Communications), four program circles (Network, Academy, Alliance, Greenhouse), a Learning Circle for internal learning and development, and we are all members of the General Circle, which functions as the executive and governance circle. In addition, for special projects or to accomplish a specific task, we can propose, create and join temporary sub-circles (e.g. Visual Identity or Compensation Policy). Some circle members are permanent members, some are Stewards (Leads) of those circles, and some workers are on temporary rotations in a circle. With workers serving as members of multiple circles, and circles functioning as relatively autonomous entities, this can get complex!

Despite this apparent complexity, the goal of the circle structure is clear: to empower everyone to have a voice, to create support for all different kinds of work, to balance each worker’s time allocation and priorities, and to have all workers share in the responsibilities of the most lofty visioning exercises and the most mundane tasks. The circle structure not only ensures that the work gets done and that we leverage the variety in our experience and skills, but also creates a way to democratize the work. 

Circles have the mandate to fulfill their purpose without seeking approval from other circles; in that way, they are autonomous. However, as with any democratic process, it can get messy! What happens when the work of one circle bumps up against another? What happens when two autonomous circles need to navigate a decision together, or may even be working at cross-purposes, unknowingly? Who gets the final say? Clear channels of communication are essential, of course, as is the ability to discern where the decision-making responsibility lies. This is more about ongoing practice than looking for answers in our policies.

By its nature, our work at Good Work Institute is overlapping, interdependent, and interrelated. In our circles, we see that in action all the time. For example, the design and implementation of a new program area is held by that circle, and the members of that circle are responsible for its roll-out and success. But it also means that workers need to be sensitive to how their work might be impacting or connecting to the priorities of another circle. In fact, there are often times when work overlaps, and when certain decisions affect more than just the circle’s area of responsibility.

We are all ambassadors of each of our circles, and therefore we all hold the responsibility of ensuring there is transparency and the requisite consent amongst other circles affected by our work. We have developed a feel for it, and are continuing to learn from this balancing act of autonomy, trust, and interdependence. 

There are a few communications tactics we use when we come up against an instance of the work of circles overlapping, and when decisions need to be made in tandem or triaged:

  • When there is a question of mandate (i.e. who holds a decision), we engage the conversation, circle-to-circle, and come to an understanding and shared game plan.
  • We let the other circle or circles know of an impending decision with clarity on request and timeline.
  • If the other circle(s) feels strongly that the mandate is with them, then the decision is paused until a conversation can be had and consensus can be reached.

As with any small, committed group of independently-minded people striving to implement a shared mission, we find ourselves continually confronted by the importance of consent and smart structuring in support of democratizing our work. We believe that it is a valuable part of our impact in the world: to experiment, to honor the process, to trust each other, and to share the results at large, as we at GWI refine our worker self-directed nonprofit model.

We launched this series of articles and reflections in September 2019 to share our journey of moving from a traditional hierarchical nonprofit to a worker self-directed nonprofit. We hope by opening up this transition it might help others take the first steps towards sharing power in their workplaces.

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