By Linda Berens and originally published at encode.org on medium.com

Why Being a Purpose Agent Is Not Just About Practicing Holacracy

I’ve almost never worked for a large business in my 72 years of life and I got fired from the one I did work for at age 20. The work, putting prices on products for a large discount store, was meaningless to me. Getting fired was one of the most painful experiences of my life and I obsessed about my ‘failure’ for years, but now I can see that what was missing was a sense of purpose and what triggered me the most were the power plays where some people were allowed to not perform and were treated with favoritism.

I don’t think all work has to have deep meaning in and of itself, but there has to be some sense of how it contributes to my own purpose.

With this example, my ‘purpose’ was to earn money. Yet, given what I now know about my personality patterns, I find purpose any time I’m working in a system that is well designed. I enjoy it when those around me are competently filling roles and when I can contribute to improving the system. I guess I did have a higher purpose — to contribute to a well-functioning, purposeful organization. But alas, I didn’t know that at the time and that organization was not driven by purpose, but by greed. My supervisor tried to tell me I wasn’t cut out for that work. I can see, now, that she was probably right. I always thought it was because the work didn’t match my talents, and that is true, but I needed more autonomy than I was given to influence the system.

After I completed my Masters in Counseling, I was ‘budgeted out’ of my job as a school psychologist for a small school district. It is not an accident that I decided to start my own consulting business with a colleague rather than seek employment again. Working with others has an appeal, but not working ‘for’ an enterprise. Never have I wanted to work ‘for’ an enterprise until Holacracy came along and then I discovered I was working with the enterprise.

So it is no surprise that when my organizational client, Ternary Software, started playing with a new ‘operating system’ that became known as Holacracy, I was totally taken with this system. It provided that autonomy and distribution of authority that I’ve always desired. I even spent 6 months as a partner in HolacracyOne in order to make a contribution to the practice of Holacracy. I left that partnership due to some health reasons and on reflection I see that while I love the practice of Holacracy, my personal purpose did not find expression in alignment with the purpose of HolacracyOne. If it had, I would have found a way to stay engaged. I am still a fan, but it wasn’t until I joined encode.org that the importance of true purpose alignment became clear.

Working inside encode.org has helped me see what was missing. I don’t say ‘working for encode.org’, because I am an independent Purpose Agent, not an employee. I choose to make a contribution to the purpose of encode.org by being a partner and there is alignment with my own personal purpose.

encode.org partners in Amsterdam: Jo, Linda, Nate and Tom

Not just Holacracy, but Alignment with Purpose

Before the formal establishment of encode.org, a group of us engaged in conversations about what is needed for Holacracy to have as much impact on the world of work as it could have. I thought this emerging organization might be a good container for my life work of identifying patterns of individual differences and helping individuals increase self-awareness and agility. I thought it would provide services that I could offer, but it became clear that as the founding partners sensed into what would best facilitate enterprises to be fully self-organizing, the first purpose statement focused on ‘legal, financial, and social foundations of self-organizing enterprises.’ The offer of encode.org is agreements and services that support enterprises in making the power shift that is truly needed. That was not what I had envisioned, yet I was still drawn to contribute, but in what way?

The conversations and exploration of my becoming a partner took place over the course of six months as Membership Grants role filler, Tom Thomison, skillfully helped me explore if, and where, there was alignment. Even after I joined as a partner, participating in the Holacracy practices with very supportive colleagues has helped me see more clearly where and how that alignment exists. Working with the other Purpose Agents in encode.org is so fulfilling and growth producing that it does not matter that my whole purpose is not the same, but that there is some alignment with my main purpose in life.

At the moment, the best way I can articulate my purpose is that it is to illuminate the value of individual differences in ways that foster self-esteem and fulfilling relationships. At encode.org I can contribute to liberating individuals from the constraints and pain that happen inside traditionally structured enterprises just by energizing my roles. At the moment these roles include Proofreader, where I edit documents for how effectively they deliver our message, and Bias Illuminator, where I am tasked with reviewing content for biases. Never before in my life have people, or an enterprise, valued my constant critiquing. I feel so well used!

The role of Association Tools and Methods is most related to my life work. In energizing this role, I continue the research I’m always doing to find models and practices that can help people develop, increase their self-esteem, and find ways to express their needs, talents, drives, and other gifts while working in relationships with others. I am a very happy camper as I get to explore and expand on what I was already doing.

Not Just Holacracy, but Clear Legal and Financial Agreements

Encode.org is a very important contributor to my own purpose fulfillment. And it is structured in such a way that I can contribute the amount of focus time I have available, while expressing my purpose through other emerging enterprises, like evolution at work, and reinventing the enterprise I founded back in 1987.

I am free to contribute what degree of focus time I have available as I manage being a partner in at least three other organizations.

For my work to have value in the world, I realized that it needs to live in different containers, not just in some company I formed that tried to be all things to all people.

Encode.org’s dynamic capital structure and the company’s operating agreement gives me that freedom, without my having to sign away all the rights to my life’s work. This need of mine might be unique to me, but if I didn’t have that freedom and clarity in the Operating Agreement and Member Agreements, it would be a constant struggle to ‘protect’ my turf. Inside encode.org, these agreements have shown me the power of being truly purpose driven and have helped me know how to proceed with agreements with traditional business entities. They have also helped me see what is possible, freeing me up to join with other Self-Organizing Enterprises that are clearly purpose driven.

Not Just Holacracy, but also the Association

Holacracy helps separate ‘soul from role,’ but how does it meet the needs of my soul? It doesn’t and it doesn’t claim to. That is not its purpose.

This is where encode.org comes in with the first statement of purpose: “legal, financial, and social foundations.” Working with this early understanding of purpose, encode.org identified three necessary aspects of an enterprise.

In one of the early Special Topic Meetings, it became clear that it wasn’t just about differentiating roles needed to do the work from the people doing the work. At the center of the work of the Organization, and the interests of the Company, and the Association of people doing the work is always an individual Purpose Agent — a human being doing the work, acting as a sensor for the Organization, and with financial interests in the Company, and in relationship with other people. Thus the Association Agreement emerged that has in it a clear statement about honoring individual differences. If this quality was not an integral part of encode.org, I would not feel as welcome as a Purpose Agent. Because of this culture and the clear agreement to process personal and interpersonal tensions outside the context of the work (and as soon as possible after we become aware of those tensions), I feel truly at welcome as whole human being in encode.org.

Even in the Founding Member Agreement the social needs of individuals were recognized and agreed to.

A. …Unlike the Organizational Purpose, and the relationship among its Roles, the Association Norms comprise the initial elements of nascent interpersonal culture among the individuals engaged in filling those Roles.

B. The Partnership Norms are generally understood by the Founding Members to include transparency , acknowledgement of limits, bias toward action-taking on behalf of the Organization, and mutual positive regard.

And Yes, Holacracy Practice Contributes

I think that having Holacracy as the operating system for doing work had been very helpful. Just having purpose alignment by itself would not have had the degree of impact that being inside a purpose driven enterprise has had. First of all, I feel very fortunate that encode.org has partners who are Certified Holacracy Coaches. This helps us all keep on track. More importantly, these very skilled Holacracy practitioners know how to be firm, but kind, in their facilitation and in maintaining role clarity and role boundaries. Even for me with my years of ‘understanding’ Holacracy and having attended the Practitioner training five times, I still had, and have, some unlearning to do.

In addition, some key aspects of my personality were/are triggered by Holacracy. I love the autonomy, but I rather bristle at all of the ‘rules’ to follow, especially when I’m feeling less competent than is comfortable.

After all, one of the things I love about Holacracy is that it doesn’t leave any one personality pattern in pain for a long time. Holacracy was designed to honor individual differences and it does that well, but without the Association agreement, rigid adherence to practices can be brutal.

The supportive environment of encode.org comes through in the tone of voice and the recognition that “Association Space” is always present. We are after all people, not robots, doing work.

The environment set by the agreement for mutual positive regard and honoring individual differences has meant that the more experienced Holacracy Practitioners have been patient and honor my learning style, even if unconsciously. This has allowed me to get ever more clear on my own purpose as well as the alignment of my purpose with the purpose of the enterprise. And yes, purpose has made all the difference.


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