“It has been a bit of rollercoaster, albeit it one with no height restrictions and an office-based theme. During the process I have fluctuated between hopeful, frustrated, excited, bored, interested, determined, happy, grumpy, thankful and something that could only really be captured in a facial expression.”—Ralph
Two years ago, PIRC transitioned from a slightly dysfunctional, hierarchical organisation with a lone director to something more systematised, functional, and non-hierarchical. It’s been a proper rollercoaster. And it’s an ongoing process of experimenting and iterating.
Let me outline our experience of the twelve steps (sorry) to organisational structural change:
1. Acknowledge you’ve got a problem
We’d been saying for years that things weren’t quite right. Every year, in our team appraisals, the same themes would come up again and again: lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities, bottlenecks, people feeling disempowered, the sense that we weren’t making the best decisions.
Organisations experience all sorts of problems when the culture and the structure are off. Symptoms of an unhealthy organisation may include:
- Decision-making in your organisation is like a mysterious black box
- One person shouldering the burden of responsibility, creating bottlenecks
- Feelings of disempowerment and demotivation
- Hidden power structures and invisible labour
- Feelings of disconnect between the organisation’s espoused values and practice.
We had all of these. And there are impacts. At the more serious end of the scale, organisations can cause pain and trauma through recreating wider systems of oppression in their internal practice. Stress and unhappiness can permeate the organisation. And we all become less effective.
2. Hope that change is possible
We had hoped that things could be better for a long time. We were really inspired by organisations like Platform, Seeds for Change (now also Navigate), more like people and People & Planet; as well as by powerful, horizontally-organised social movements such as Sisters Uncut. We were like “Yeah… we could do that. Right…?!”
3. Make the decision
“We were talking about this when I first joined PIRC, in 2012. Initially, I didn’t think it was a great idea because I wanted structure and support and thought that directorship was the way to do that. But I realised that many of my objections were red-herrings. Going flat doesn’t mean you can’t have good leadership. It just means you remove the arbitrary powers and responsibilities assigned to one person. In sharing the responsibilities of a director role, you can still listen to what people want to do at work, and honour people’s expertise and skills. The most exciting thing is that we get to decide who does what together.”—Bec
It took us a long time to make the decision. We blamed busy schedules but I think—honestly—we were all nervous about what it would mean. In the end, we got some serious nudges from good friends who helped us along the way by facilitating various sessions for us: Shilpa Shah on good facilitation; James Robertson on organisational structures and governance; and Tanya Hawkes (then at Platform) for the final push at the end of yet another deja-vu appraisal process (“People… you said this last year…”). Thanks, y’all.
4. Make a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves
Well. We probably weren’t fearless. But we *were* open about our fears.
Our appraisal process had given us some pretty rich material for an analysis of what was up with our structure and culture. Each year, we’d asked ourselves in our individual appraisal forms:
- What works well at PIRC?
- What doesn’t work so well?
- What makes your job easy / hard?
We’d worked on lots of things, but there were these persistent patterns that wouldn’t go away: such as feelings of disempowerment and a lack of clarity around decision-making.
5. Make confessions of our wrongs
“I’m afraid I just don’t have time for this right now. For when I do.”—Rich
We’ve had some difficult conversations over this two-year period. A lot of them have been about power. What it means to hold power in our organisation, and how that interacts with the power structures in wider culture. How we see patriarchy, classism, racism, ableism, heteronormativity, and multiple other systems of oppression being reproduced internally. And understanding more nuanced privileges: hierarchies of experience, knowledge, voice, and articulation.
It’s important to talk about these things. To air them, and to think about what we’d like to do differently. If you can, get some external facilitation for this: we got Kat Wall to come and do a session on power and privilege with us, for example, and there are lots of others who could do the same (like the wonderful Tripod, Seeds or Navigate). Some of us have been to do Training for Change and Campaign Bootcamp trainings, which also provide so much insight on these dynamics. And we also have ongoing Team Dynamic meetings: more on those in a bit.
“I have high hopes for the nieustructura here at PIRC. It might mean investing more time in meetings to set the structure in place at first, but in the long run, will create a much more effective cohesive whole.”—James
We weren’t all sure about this at first. It took a lot of conversation for us to agree that this what what we wanted. You have to commit, as a team. Everyone’s roles are going to change. It takes time. There will be many meetings. Blood, sweat and tears. Are you ready?
7. Ask to remove shortcomings
“As PIRC has grown over the years, in both ambition and size, the initially attractive informality of how we carried out our work and management has slowly become cumbersome, chaotic and disempowering.
So a new way was needed and we set out to find it. Almost inevitably, the actual process of finding this new way was starting to look like it too would become cumbersome, chaotic and disempowering. Then all of a sudden, almost magically, a new way appeared out of the ether: thanks to a long meeting involving great effort on everyone’s part and some excellent facilitation.
Great. Any reason why we can’t just get on and do it? No. So we’re doing it and it’s actually exciting.
Who would have thought that organisational structure and process could actually stimulate anyone?
8. Make a list of amends
We asked ourselves: what does an organisation (like ours) need in order to function?
And we wrote a list of activities—starting from first principles—that evolved into something like this:
- Strategic direction
- Office facilities
- Skills and training
- Understanding capacity
- Scheduling / programming
- Team cohesion
- Reviews & appraisals
This list coalesced into five Core Groups: Comms, Direction, People, Programming and Resources. Each Core Group now has its own mission statement and spirit animal. Yes, really.*
We talked a lot about what we wanted our organisation to be like. We agreed that we wanted to centre it on a good culture—anti-oppressive, supportive, connected, transparent—and to build effective and equitable systems and processes around that. And we agreed that we wanted to work by consensus: everyone participating in the decisions that shape our organisation, including developing strategy.
9. Make amends
“Let’s get flat!”—Elena
So we piloted (and are still running with) our five Core Groups. We rotate between them: each of us variously sitting in between one and three of them at any one time. Each Core Group has a high degree of autonomy to make day-to-day decisions.
We rely on our meeting cycle to keep us on track, provide forums to make decisions and discuss our organisational working culture. Highlights include:
- The All Staff Meeting—every six weeks— for Core Group updates and proposals, accountability, and where the big decisions are made;
- Team Dynamics—monthly—where we reflect on our culture and how we’re working together;
- PDATs—also monthly, where we just hang out / eat pizza / try and make grenadine from scratch for tequila sunrise.
Our daily work is also kept on track using Slack (where we keep up general comms and make smaller decisions: including whose responsibility it is to make the grenadine).
Tequila sunrises. Dangerous.
10. Continue to do searching and fearless inventory of ourselves
We reviewed how the new structure was working after 3, 8, and 12 months; as well as regular check-ins at our All Staff Meeting about the whole process, and also the space to raise issues at the Team Dynamics meeting. We’ve just done another big review of our processes (after 20 months) and we haven’t shied away from the question of whether we even want to stay flat.
Things that we’ve discovered during these reviews include things like:
- Whole team priorities can feel unclear or disunified once work is decentralised;
- The remit and autonomy of each Core Group wasn’t immediately clear cut;
- There are so many policies, systems and processes to review once you start changing things that it can feel overwhelming.
To tackle these particular issues, we spent time agreeing what the priorities were for each Core Group (within each Core Group, and then with the whole staff group). This meant we could draw up a clear timeline of work for everybody, based on these priorities and time estimates. This has helped each of us to plan properly and commit to work, without feeling overwhelmed and at sea. Also, the All Staff Meeting can hold each group accountable to these commitments.
11. Keep contact with the process
The lynchpin of the reviews mentioned has, in my opinion, been the Team Dynamics meeting.
Conventional practice tells us to leave our emotional selves at the door; to reduce the oppressive structures of the outside world to diversity quotas. Our Team Dynamics meetings are one way of overturning this. They ensure that there’s space for us to reflect on our culture, and to express all of our more emotional—both difficult and celebratory—responses to this.
It happens once a month, for a few hours, in which we:
- Have a few minutes of quiet, to ground ourselves;
- Reflect on the purpose of the meeting, and our commitments to each other in our group agreement;
- Spend a few minutes reflecting on a question, such as when we have felt most and least empowered at work recently;
- Have a go-round of empowered times, and then disempowered times;
- Focus in on one or two of these issues for further discussion, and agree when other issues can be discussed or addressed in some other way;
- Have a facilitated discussion on these issues.
We think it needs updating and tweaking, but it’s definitely kept us in touch with ourselves and the process.
Group agreement 1.0
12. Help others
“There is a lot of human waste out there.”—Dora
And now you’re up to the present time. We would like to support others, and be supported back. We’d like to start building a community of practice around good organisational culture, and share what works.
Because we’ve just been experimenting, and we think you should too. We’re definitely a happier bunch.
Call to get in touch if you wanna talk organisational structures with us.
* Yep, really. Below:
Our vision: We exist to build a community of culture(d) fans around our work. We do this by making it easy for the team to create amazing communications through all the channels and ensuring they are in keeping with a distinctive PIRC style that all team members love.
Our vision: We are all aligned and excited by the strategic direction of the organisation, having had the right amount of space and time to debate the big questions, develop new ideas and reflect on the evaluation of our work. Our trustee board, who offer a high degree of support and challenge, is culturally aligned with the organisation, made up of a diverse group of people who understand our work and are committed to our values.
Our vision: We exist to ensure that team members are generally doing okay: feeling happy, well and supported in their work and development; that the team is connected and is working in a way that is equitable and anti-oppressive; and that the working culture doesn’t cause stress, unhappiness, or encourage overworking but rather encourages learning, connection, development and healthy living.
Our vision: That PIRC fulfils our commitments to projects, development, core organisational work and staff wellbeing in a fair, transparent and accountable way. We seek to ensure that all work is properly planned, managed, and completed in a timely fashion, with capacity, accountability, and enough flexibility to allow for the inevitable unknown unknowns.
Our vision: A world in which our organisation meets all its legal requirements; has enough money to pay every team member, regularly and with regular increases; and in which our staff are able to carry out all our work comfortably and fully-equipped with nice notebooks and pens.