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Created on 29.07.2019 | Updated on 08.06.2021

Team organization – sociocracy provides fresh impetus

Sociocracy as a form of organization focuses on systematically giving teams autonomy and self-responsibility. Nicolas Bärtschi outlines how this is implemented in practice and where the benefits and boundaries lie. He works at VNTR | Innovation & Venturing by PostFinance.

PostFinance is developing into a digital powerhouse and faces challenges for which there are no pre-defined solutions. Overcoming such challenges not only requires new methods, such as agile working, but also new forms of team organization. Both Data Science and VNTR | Innovation have decided to set up their team on a sociocratic basis. This form of organization focuses on systematically giving teams autonomy and self-responsibility. Nicolas Bärtschi explains how VNTR uses the sociocratic form of organization to tackle challenging innovation tasks.

How does working in a sociocratic team differ from working in a team based on conventional team leadership?

The difference lies, for example, in how the targets – which we as the VNTR must attain – are dealt with. Whereas in a team organized along traditional lines, the team leader tells their employees when particular tasks have to be performed and how based on objectives, we discuss our objectives as a team and decide together on how to go about achieving them. This means we have a high degree of autonomy as a team but also organize ourselves accordingly and bear individual responsibility. 

What rules does the team apply?

Sociocracy has many different forms in practice. At VNTR, we’ve decided on three rules. Rule 1 is that we make decisions based on the principle of consensus. This means that decisions are only made if no team member objects with strong arguments. In this way, the individual team member obtains greater decision-making authority than in a democratic vote, for example, where the majority of votes matters of if only the opinion of the boss counts. Rule 2 says that every team member is equal regardless of whether they are an intern or a senior employee with many years of experience. This means every team member has the same right of involvement. Under rule 3, we organize ourselves in roles – every team member is assigned one or more roles. In our team, for example, someone is responsible for finance, somebody else for marketing, while we all work on the development of innovations.

You mentioned the principle of consensus. How does that work in practice?

Based on consensus, responsibility for an issue is always allocated to a role. This also means that only decisions which go beyond the competencies of the roles or that have a major influence on the team are taken to the team. In such cases everyone asks whether it’s something that concerns them. Does it jeopardize our project or the team? Are our resources being used properly? As soon as somebody casts a veto, they must then help to structure the new solution so that it also meets their expectations. On one hand, this procedure helps avoid long-winded discussions and also to tackle things which someone is not keen on but do not concern them as an assignment. On the other, things that do not take account of the project as a whole are stopped. 

Why is equality between employees so important in sociocracy?

In our team, we are working on innovations and breaking down thought patterns which means we’re heavily dependent on a wide range of input and ideas. This would be difficult in a team with a traditional hierarchical structure. The fresh input that’s so vitally important to us is only generated if all team members have an equal voice. Sociocracy provides a burst of fresh impetus. Sociocracy also enables each individual to focus on their strengths and interests for the benefit of the whole. This allows employees to develop and keeps them highly motivated.

Where does sociocracy reach its limits in your view?

Firstly, when the team is much bigger than ours, it becomes difficult to set up a team sociocratically in terms of the effort involved and to establish the culture required. There are obviously also challenges at an interpersonal level. As everyone goes their own way and nobody has overall control, we must keep an eye on each other as a team and frankly address issues, such as performance levels not being met or somebody having an excessively heavy workload. 

To which type of teams is sociocracy best suited?

For teams like us working on tasks where solutions are required. At VNTR we’ve been set up along sociocratic lines for over four years and are continually improving this form of organization. We’ve seen that better results can be achieved, especially since a wide range of input is fed in. I firmly believe that companies will require various forms of organization in future – sociocracy is just one of them.

How would you sum up the impact of sociocracy at VNTR?

There are lots of areas where we would not have performed as well if we’d been set up traditionally. Personally, I couldn’t imagine working any other way now. 

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