Sociocracy at Woonoz

Written by Vincent Lussiez, on 04 September 2019

Implementing a traditional continuous improvement process often involves deploying tools and decision-making bodies to collect ideas. Then comes the time to choose and arbitrate among all these ideas, often the role of managers, to finally retain only a few that will be converted into concrete actions. For employees whose ideas have not been selected, this mode of operation can be a source of frustration and demotivation. By using sociocracy principles in project management, such as the redesign of its premises, Woonoz turns the participation of its employees into a source of motivation and commitment, allowing everyone to express and defend their point of view.

Woonoz is a Lyon-based startup specializing in Memorization Anchoring®. Undergoing significant growth, the company had around fifty employees less than 3 years ago and now has over 100. Highly involved locally within the agile regional community and driven by curiosity, one of its founders, François Paret, already very interested in innovative management practices, decided to embark on a new adventure and apply sociocracy principles as a management method for certain large-scale projects affecting a large number of people. This includes projects related to the rearrangement of premises made necessary by the increasing number of employees joining the organization.

Behind this idea was the desire to involve everyone in the project through consent so that each person feels heard in their needs for working conditions and, more importantly, can have a say and express it in case of disagreement with the few proposals prepared by the management with the help of an architect.

Consensus pulls down, consent lifts up. - François Paret, CEO and co-founder of Woonoz

The experimentation began with the implementation of the first 3 operating rules of sociocracy:

Operating in Circles

At Woonoz, there are 9 circles, mostly comprising people from the same work team. The division was also done equally to have about 10 people in each circle.

Election of a representative by Circle without candidates

Each Circle then chose its representative. In an open mode, without declared candidates, Circle members proceeded to select their representative in a very relevant way, according to François, highlighting people genuinely appreciated and thus gaining unanimous support within their Circle. The task of each representative was to present, during a summary meeting bringing together all Circle representatives and the management, the proposal approved by their Circle and, therefore, to participate through their vote in the choice made to retain the final layout proposal.

Decision-making by consent

Each Circle gathered around a few previously studied layout proposals. This preliminary work allowed for setting a framework and ensuring the technical feasibility of the solutions presented to save time in discussions (Circles did not start with a blank sheet). This allowed for swift progress towards a new version of the workspace layouts without stifling the creativity of employees who could express themselves.

Unlike consensus, François explains, consent implies the agreement of all Circle members to the decision taken. Participation in the choice is done through a show of hands vote: thumbs up for "agreement," thumbs down for "disagreement," or a flat hand horizontally to indicate neutrality. Each "disagreement" vote then leads to a reasoned discussion where the employee in "disagreement" explains the reason for their vote. During these exchanges, François was pleasantly surprised to find almost no "disagreement" votes for the sake of disagreement. People took responsibility for themselves. Discussions continued until all initially "disagreement" votes were lifted or a new decision was made.

The real value of sociocracy lies in this exercise of argumentation and the accountability of each person for their choices, knowing that, in the end, there must be consent to endorse a decision. François also observed that many very valid arguments and pertinent ideas emerged from these discussions, enriching the initial proposals.

In sociocracy's operating principles, there is a fourth rule: the double link. In Woonoz's case, François himself took on the role of relaying and being the information bearer between all Circles, alongside the representative of each circle. He participated in all meetings, allowing him to closely follow the proper progress of the practice.

Ultimately, the experimentation resulted in a final version of the premises layout plan different from the initial proposals, enriched with feedback and viewpoints expressed in each of the Circles. For François, it was a success and a great satisfaction to have succeeded in involving all employees in the project. According to him, "It requires a lot of trust," but the quality of working relationships has only grown, which is also reflected in motivation and cohesion around the values ​​upheld by the company.

Now, Woonoz aims to extend sociocracy principles to other activities and for other projects, such as innovation management. The journey of managerial experimentation is far from over...