[:en]Managing a planning firm as a Teal Organisation. This is what we learned[:]


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1. The Company is growing, great! Right. Right? Right??

Thomas Stellmach, urbanist and founder of TSPA, realised two years ago that his firm, and life, had to change. The situation didn’t look bad: International city planning projects were underway, academia and international organisations invited TSPA for conferences and lectures. Yet tension was high and constant, mistakes happened, plus the permanent anxiety that there is always more to be done.

Organisational aspects

Why was that? Too much was dependent on Thomas himself. Clients wanted to talk to him directly, decisions had to be taken. Various attempts to outsource or delegate had failed due to decreased quality in results. It was time to transition from an assisted one-person show to a larger structure. Was it time to build a pyramid-shaped org chart?

Mycelium Rhizome, 2009 Pencil on paper 120 x 240 cm. Collection of the artist Represented by Galerie Dusseldorf
Mycelium Rhizome, 2009 Pencil on paper 120 x 240 cm. Collection of the artist Represented by Galerie Dusseldorf

Trust

There was another, more metaphysical, challenge. Thomas had set up two companies before, first Kinzo, then Uberbau. Both ended up falling apart mostly due to abuse of trust, lack of collaborative communication and assertive problem solving. What fundamental conditions have to be established to avoid having this happen again? Tighter control? No more partners?

After reading a big part of the organisational literature available in 2020 – much of it terrible, some of it enlightening – Thomas saw the chance to try the opposite. The team had grown to about a dozen young and bright colleagues. What if we tried to open decision-making to everyone? What if we can create a safe, supportive, and happy environment where no one sees the need to pursue their agendas? Would that be at odds with the outside world?

Some of the literature: Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations; Ray Dalio, Principles; Ben Horowitz, The hard thing about the hard things, Stefan Merath, Der Weg zum Erfolgreichen Unternehmer; Kim Scott, Radical Candor, Noam Wasserman, The Founder’s Dilemmas

Self-managed teams are nothing new. They gained popularity in the 1970s and 1980s. In 2007, Brian Robertson re-took these principles. He came up with holacracy and the fluid decision organisation, a process that looks at individuals in a corporation and invites them to take agency through circles. This approach was proposed to increase agility, efficiency, transparency, innovation, and accountability. Frederic Laloux placed this approach in his book Reinventing Organisations in a wider context of the evolution of organisational forms, teal organisations being the most evolved. He then describes practices and case studies of companies implementing procedures around purpose, self-management, and wholeness.

Values and Purpose

More fundamentally, self-management allows one to create an environment one wants to work in and exist in: How important is precision, fun, holidays, flexibility, reliability, success, money? These are questions without general answers and can only emerge from within the individuals of TSPA – so it was time to talk about that.

Hmm… should we organise ourselves rather like the mafia or like the catholic church? (From Leloux, Reinventing Organizations)

2. Where it all started: a workation retreat in Brandenburg

With many recent additions to the team a retreat was the best opportunity to start a holacracy system and consolidate TSPA as what Laloux describes as a Teal organisation: a corporation that thinks of individuals as a whole not only as employees or a work function. (Photo: Bram van Stappen, 2022)

To get to the basics, we needed to understand everyone’s points and ideas in an adequately unique environment. We left with the team for the Coconat Retreat at the highest peak of Brandenburg (201m!). Here we exchanged personal and professional ideas, values, goals, visions, and how we wanted TSPA to be as an organisation.

To get to the basics, we needed to understand everyone’s points and ideas in an adequately unique environment. We left with the team for the Coconat Retreat at the highest peak of Brandenburg (201m!). Here we exchanged personal and professional ideas, values, goals, visions, and how we wanted TSPA to be as an organisation.

Everyone on the team was both the attendee and facilitator. Background material and program were prepared weeks in advance. The retreat was a mix of brainstorming sessions, workshops, fun activities, and decision-making. We discussed hard and bonded. There was a sauna, songs, and nature.

This is how the holacracy basics align with the TSPA values and principles we identified:

Purpose driven (everyone has a leading role) 

  1. Find your passion
  2. Think of us instead of I
  3. Strive for excellence
  4. Love each other
  5. Be crazy and have fun

Responsive approach

  1. Experiment, improve, innovate
  2. Go where it hurts

Efficiency and transparent authority, clear  “rules of the game”

  1. Keep learning ask and listen
  2. Be rational and precise
  3. Trust each other and be radically honest

Clear roles and responsibilities

  1. Assume responsibilities
  2. Have and resolve conflicts
  3. Share knowledge
  4. Take action
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The set of values and principles that we shared: A mix between the holacracy basis, our personal and professional needs, characters, and goals.
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Pinboard of the Brandenburg retreat: What values are important above all for you in your workplace?

The structure we adopted gives the teams and individuals freedom and power of decision. Decisions are made in flexible small teams called circles: groups of two to three people who manage a field of responsibility in the office – e.g., hiring, acquisition, or PR. If their decisions relate to other areas – they ask them for counsel. This structure means a higher level of involvement in office matters beyond their project-related tasks.

3. The first Crisis

Of course, it didn’t work at first. We had assumed we could assign circles quickly and get started, but that was too quick – roles were unclear, there were worries about the time balance between project work and circle work (and no one wanted to be in accounting).

So we took two steps back. In March 2020, after our retreat, the lockdown restrictions from the then newly COVID-19 pandemic started to be implemented and all efforts needed to be continued remotely. It seemed like the initial inertia would stop, but it didn’t: We established a task force that prepared internal circle job descriptions, and held internal job interviews. To implement circle work,

  1. we identified the tasks that one to three people performed in the office,
  2. we made sure to describe and delineate all the tasks that each circle had to attend,
  3. we invited the whole team to choose the suitable circle or circles for them. Each circle went through a detailed map of roles and responsibilities, a helpful process to clean and simplify repetitive tasks, identify bottlenecks and stop micromanagement.

After six months, training sessions for each circle followed, and we adopted our roles and workflow in the new processes. The training period was followed by a period of failures (“Oh, we have a meeting with a potential client in Brazil. Did you prepare an office presentation for them?” “No, you?”). These failures were necessary, though. They marked when the decision-making power moved from Thomas to the teams. It would have started a slow, inevitable slide back to a hierarchy of responsibilities and checks had he stepped in. Not everyone was trained to perform the work we were doing in the circle, and most of us had to re-learn how to work horizontally. The pandemic was an opportunity to slow down and focus more on the inner structure of TSPA.

What followed? Many more missed opportunities. Also, most plants in our office died. Some people left the firm – they expressed they were at TSPA to do expert planning work, not to co-manage a company.

4. Things start working

But the learning continued, leadership evolved from supervision and direction to facilitation and coaching. This wasn’t always easy but we were able to discuss dynamics that we would usually take for granted to a deeper level.

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TSPA’s seven circles, dots indicate team size

Six months after the first circle structure implementation, we held a feedback session with the team to understand where we are:

All praised the circle structure because we co-created the office, and the team realised we could rely on and support each other. However, some of the group felt like there was a lack of responsibility and commitment derived from the classic structure idea of hierarchical organisations. We were waiting for someone to tell us what to do. Therefore, we stated that circles are as important as projects in the sense of responsibility and accountability, with a complete horizontal structure within the circle team. More experience translated only into a bigger ability to do mentorship.

After a time of many training sessions and meetings in this transition period, we agreed to have fewer and better meetings.

We also realised that the new way of working does not work for everyone. Nonetheless we decided to not introduce two classes or systems within the firm: working for TSPA means committing to both the substantial work and to our organisational structure.

5. The second crisis

The journey so far felt like a success. The second crisis, about one year after establishing the new structure, was external: the pandemic continued, projects we counted on were delayed. There were insufficient funds to keep the team together. This situation put our decision-making to the test. Do we all reduce our salaries, or do we shrink the team?

The open discussions could not remove all uncertainty, but we did remove all elements of office politics. The pandemic slow-down is behind us now, and the second crisis was an important step where we learned to make hard decisions together.

6. Maturity

Self-management

Two years after implementing our circle structure, we believe we have found a place of balance and developed our shade of teal. We still encounter challenges, but we have reached a point where the organisation functions, and we enjoy the journey. Each circle has clear goals and responsibilities. We keep evolving and making decisions autonomously, and where it affects the overall office beyond the circle together. If circles request it, Thomas joins and supports them. His role is shifting towards mentorship and support where needed.

Purpose

We are more explicit with the company’s policies, more transparent with the financial status, and more inclusive in the decision-making process. This approach has improved the quality of our work – which fits the ‘strive for excellence’ value. In the last few months, we have seen our colleagues flourish: Alessandra running Isocarp young planners workshops and leading complex research consortia, Pebo receiving awards in China and discussing governance instruments with city governments, Filippo presenting and negotiating directly with clients and colleagues across Asia and teaching geodata science in Brandenburg, Bella managing workshops with Chemnitz and Düsseldorf administrations, and Aurelija putting together teams for multi-million Euro tenders.

We have stopped counting holidays – colleagues decide on their holidays together with their direct team members –and we have jointly agreed on an earning structure, including Thomas, following the ‘trust’ value. Yet, we have significantly increased turnover while reducing workload.

Wholeness

Things have not been all pink and rosy. We have had to make tough decisions, go through tense discussions, grow and shrink the team. We have evolved as an organisation and been through the pandemic’s tough circumstances. Nonetheless, the past two years have proven that we have found a model that works for us and paved the way for a sustainable way of working and developing personally. In the end, this is about happiness: being part of an institution that represents our personal beliefs and where we have the power of shaping our future.

We also made hard decisions, such as shrinking the team when it became evident that skill sets were overlapping or didn’t match. We intentionally do not perceive ourselves as a family or think that all decisions need to be taken in consensus: We are still an urban planning firm first – which we use as a vehicle for personal well-being. That is why we feel that our approach is mature – not everything has worked out, but we got things to work.

And what will happen if we grow from 7 to 20 people, or from 20 to 70 staff? Do we even want that? That is something we will plan and figure out when the time comes.

Natalia Perez-Bobadilla and Thomas Stellmach

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