Shared governance at Decathlon: in top form!

Written by Luc Bretones, on 24 February 2022

When he took over the management of the logistics warehouse in Ferrières-en-Brie, Jean-Baptiste Delrieu had no idea of the managerial adventure he was embarking on!

The social situation was explosive in this Decathlon warehouse, with frequent stoppages and the former director had just stepped down after a burnout. For three years, he devoted himself body and soul, risking exhausting himself completely and unfortunately without much success...

Jean-Baptiste Delrieu persevered and decided to stay in his position with the fierce determination to build an effective long-term mode of operation. He particularly expressed the desire to address problems at their root, which required giving more decision-making power to the warehouse employees. The first step in a vast enterprise, which, through deep self-work, was to lead him on the paths of self-governance...

The turning point really came three years after this initial realization when he attended a seminar organized at Decathlon by Jean-François Zobrist, the head of FAVI foundries and a champion of the liberated company.

Bringing meaning to what one does, breaking down hierarchies, allowing employees to be autonomous in their choices to increase the company's responsiveness and performance... These were all mantras that resonated in harmony with Jean-Baptiste Delrieu's deep desires. Full of enthusiasm, he attempted to "liberate" his Ferrières warehouse. This journey towards shared governance was not without its difficulties and after many trials and errors.

An unsuccessful first attempt

The initial "wow" effect was such that he felt a real momentum from the warehouse staff. However, the enthusiasm quickly waned as organizational difficulties arose. Managers no longer knew where they stood. Initiatives were flying in all directions without coherence, to the detriment of efficiency. The height of it? He witnessed helplessly a recentralization of decision-making power in the hands of a few, a centralization more counterproductive than the one that existed in the traditional organization! They were far from the power sharing desired by Jean-Baptiste Delrieu.

Experimentation with other decision-making methods

In practice, to counteract the power grab by some employees, he tested a "council" decision-making structure to organize real speaking turns - a attempt that did not succeed. At the same time, he took the time to reflect on the concept of shared decision-making itself. He discovered that it was not the majority that would empower his warehouse but decision-making by consent.

Decision-making by consent is borrowed from sociocracy, this organic, evolving, particularly flexible and participatory governance model, which empowers and autonomizes, popularized notably by Frédéric Laloux in his best-selling book "Reinventing Organizations".

However, Jean-Baptiste Delrieu preferred to adapt sociocracy to the specificities of his warehouse without adopting all its elements. While he gradually shaped his teams into circles and roles were assigned according to sociocratic principles, the meeting procedures outlined by this shared governance model were not strictly followed, mainly to avoid frightening the most resistant. For example, the role of facilitator, which is the one that allows objections to be addressed to reach a decision accepted by all, does not yet exist as such in the warehouse's governance. Jean-Baptiste has time and wishes for the method to be improved over iterations.

Promising results

The warehouse director's questioning paid off. The implementation of such a consent-based governance model truly works. Among the key indicators measured at Decathlon every year, well-being at work is particularly scrutinized by Jean-Baptiste Delrieu. Last year, it evolved positively. Employee engagement and their enjoyment of work reached very high levels, which necessarily has an impact on team productivity and performance.

The factors for success are multiple. First of all, embarking on such a reorganization requires, by its nature, deep self-work, a real challenge for a manager who has always been trained in hierarchy. Accepting to trust and admitting that his employees have the legitimacy to make decisions also requires stepping back on one's own actions, adopting a critical stance on one's way of being and doing.

Such efforts were made with the invaluable support of "Université du Nous". The expert and neutral eye of the consultants from this firm specialized in the transition to a new generation of companies accompanied the Ferrières warehouse and its director in the transformation of their governance model.

Finally, support from the hierarchy is crucial, especially when the reorganization concerns only one entity and not the organization as a whole. Jean-Baptiste Delrieu actually seized the opportunity offered to him in 2019 by the renewal of top management, which looked favorably on the liberation of the company dear to Jean-François Zobrist. From start to finish, Jean-Baptiste Delrieu kept his hierarchy informed of the experience he was leading.

A model that inspired other warehouses

With a little hindsight, the Ferrières warehouse served as a pilot. Regularly, Jean-Baptiste Delrieu received colleagues from other warehouses who came to experiment with sociocratic tools (candidate-free election, consent-based decision-making, etc.) and exchange live with the Ferrières warehouse director on how his method works. Viral effect guaranteed, reinforced by the communication of good performance indicators. Moreover, the regular exchanges between employees from Decathlon warehouses strengthened this spread within the company, their voice appearing deeply legitimate as they are the first concerned.

Jean-Baptiste Delrieu also set up a co-development space aimed at teaching anyone interested about the functioning of shared governance methods, the roles of facilitator, first link manager, or second link. The goal is for the warehouse to become autonomous in supporting employees in their learning of shared governance and improving their skills.

This deepening of knowledge allows Jean-Baptiste Delrieu's colleagues to spread beyond their warehouse. During the lockdown, they set up an online training where a group of Ferrières employees had the role of supporting participants in these online meetings. This group will eventually become a first pool of internal trainers.

Jean-Baptiste Delrieu's successful venture in Ferrières convinced the company to create a tailored position for him: to transform, with the help of "Université du Nous", six other Decathlon warehouses to match what he achieved in Ferrières. A new role that Jean-Baptiste accepted when he left the direction of his warehouse nine years after joining to satisfy his passion for self-governance and preach the sociocratic gospel in the rest of the company.