La sociocratie, accélérateur de la transformation digitale de Adeo

Written by Luc Bretones, on 09 September 2021

When a group faces fierce competition from new 100% digital competitors, reorganization often appears as a solution - a hoped-for miracle. Too often, it takes the form of cost rationalization and leads to layoff plans. Sometimes, it follows a different trajectory: a complete reorientation of team management and a radical evolution of the governance model. What if ADEO, whose transformation draws inspiration from sociocracy and the banks of the Amazon, charted an original course that the new generation of companies could follow?

Gaëtan Belbeoch loves to travel far and take on challenges. Having spent part of his career in Brazil at Leroy Merlin, he took a sabbatical year after a few years, which he spent in a Yanomani village, an Amazonian ethnic group spread across numerous autonomous villages, each led by a chief. Upon returning to France, he was entrusted with the task of revamping ADEO's customer experience and improving the functioning of the Digital Customer Experience Department, which he then headed. His Amazonian experience was foundational: it explains a significant part of the choices that guided him in the transformation of the governance of his department.

As a European leader in the home improvement market, the ADEO group houses several large and medium-sized DIY store chains, including its flagship brand Leroy Merlin, founded in 1923 in northern France. The arrival of new competitors like Amazon poses a significant challenge today. Facing the new wave of digital revolution players required a complete overhaul of the visitor experience on the group's websites.

To improve the customer experience, Gaëtan Belbeoch relied on a prominent feature of Leroy Merlin's culture: the competence and quality of customer service in stores. The store's salespeople are recognized as expert advisors and are often passionate about their work. The idea was to apply this common cultural characteristic to the web. A success: for a year now, Leroy Merlin's website has been topping the charts in terms of customer satisfaction (YouGov study, April 2021, Retail & E-commerce: which brands have performed best in terms of satisfaction?).

Simultaneously, the competition imposed by pure players had another beneficial effect: accelerating the transformation of ADEO's governance. Indeed, while each store in the group enjoyed cultivating a certain independence, facing this new competition required a rapid and extensive response. This response needed to be centralized while maintaining autonomy locally. A subtle balance that ADEO set out to find, by federating the digital function to deploy it more effectively across Europe. To improve the efficiency of its teams, Gaëtan Belbeoch started with an observation before changing everything. Agile methods, popular in the digital world, are necessary to work effectively within small, highly autonomous teams of a maximum of ten people. They allow for the production of deliverables in a short time and in a changing environment, obtaining very rapid feedback and continuous improvement. When the number of teams becomes significant, it quickly becomes challenging to ensure coherence between these teams while preserving their autonomy. A suitable governance model was missing to accompany and sustain the directional change desired by the Group.

The effectiveness of a governance model is measured by the productivity of collaborative work. Thus, inter-team meetings play a central role in the development and overall quality of a product. However, at the time of the reorganization, the level of trust among teams was at its lowest: at the project's restart, some were so dissatisfied with their work that they dared not meet their business clients anymore. After a successful restart with around twenty people divided into four teams, following the rigorous principles of the XP (Extreme Programming) method, the program accelerated, and other teams joined. Three years later, they are organized into about a dozen small agile teams grouped into three or four "streams" around business themes.

To maintain efficiency and maximum autonomy, Gaëtan Belbéoch's carefully considered choice then focused on aligning teams and a light and collective governance. Election without a declared candidate for double links, circles that are formed according to needs, facilitators who rotate at each meeting: no doubt, we are indeed in sociocracy.

Unlike the pyramids of the traditional hierarchical model, the teams in the Direction are autonomous: they are structured into sociocratic circles. They establish their functioning and define their organization based on the consent of their members. This means that no significant decision can be made if one of its members raises a reasonable objection.

At the same time, the hierarchy has not disappeared, but it is more consensual. Some circles are of higher rank, others of lower rank. Each of these circles is connected to the others. However, a lower-ranking circle is not connected to the higher-ranking circle by one person but by two. One is designated by the higher-ranking circle to represent it within the lower-ranking circle. And another is chosen by the lower-ranking circle to represent it within the higher-ranking circle. The first person resembles the manager of the traditional model, the second the notion of a leader co-opted by the entire team to represent them at the higher level.

Finally, the choice and assignment of a circle member to a function within it are made through a vote without a declared candidate. Each circle member proposes the person they believe best fits the role and must justify their choice. The absence of a candidate ensures the absence of a loser and the conviction of all that the best possible choice has been made.

The sociocratic governance implemented in this ADEO department is nevertheless tinged with an original hue. In addition to his affinity for the Agile mode, Gaëtan Belbéoch was marked by his decisive experience in the Yanomani in the Amazon. Like ADEO, this ethnic group includes several independent communities scattered over a gigantic territory but linked by the same culture. The deep convictions that Gaëtan Belbéoch brought back from the Amazon blend perfectly with the principles of sociocracy. In these villages, the chief is unknowingly a leader of the new generation. Uncommon in pyramidal organizations, he participates in frontline production efforts. Moreover, he only approves significant decisions after receiving approval from the council of elders, gathered for the occasion. Every evening, he organizes a circle giving villagers the opportunity to express and share their proposals and feelings. This relatively brief sharing session closely resembles the meetings of a sociocratic circle, relieving tensions and resolving conflicts.

The main risk of division in these Amazonian communities is linked either to latent tensions that escalate to the separation of the community or to a scarcity of food resources near the village, prompting a group to leave and found a new community further away.

At ADEO, within the Digital Customer Experience teams, a kind of daily stand-up meeting where irritating topics are discussed in addition to simple team synchronization allows leaders to feel tensions and resolve them before they generate too much frustration in the teams. Moreover, in the absence of major projects, boredom can threaten the team, and the desire to leave can become stronger. Dividing the initial team to entrust some of its members with the development of a new project then allows to restore meaning and energy to employees by opening up new horizons for the entity.

Under the leadership of a determined manager and thanks to sociocracy, to face Amazon, ADEO's Digital Customer Experience Department has successfully reorganized itself... into a Yanomani-like village in the Amazon.

Discover also: "At ADEO, a manager experiments with mid-year reviews... while walking!"