CEO speaks to benefits, challenges of a democratized workplace

CEO speaks to benefits, challenges of a democratized workplace

Brian Robertson, president and CEO of Ternary Software, says working democratically can be linked to several successes for the company. The democratic approach also makes for a more challenging workplace, but in a way that can foster growth and reward as opposed to frustration and inaction, according to the CEO.

Ternary of Exton, Pennsylvania was essentially founded as an experiment base for new methods of organizing.

Roberston and two co-founders set out with a vision to build a healthy company and to explore new and better ways to work together.

Their findings are now being delivered around the world through a new organizational model, which they developed, called holacracy.

The approach is democratic in nature, which led Ternary Software to apply and be selected for the WorldBlu List of Most Democratic Workplaces 2007.

One of the elements which characterizes the democratic approach at Ternary is a top-down and bottom-up structure or what Robertson calls double linking.

Every layer in the organization elects a representative who is then fully engaged in the next broader scope of the organization. This arrangement continues all the way up to the board level.

As a result, everyone’s voice is carried throughout the organization.

With this arrangement comes a transparency, which goes beyond openness about financial status, although it includes that, says Robertson.

“There’s a transparency down to a granular, detailed level about how we do what we do.”

Details on the different activities of each role in the organization are made visible and transparent and everyone knows the exact process for updating those details and integrating their voice and work into the various roles and activities day to day.

At the board level, the focus of the organization is not just on the return for shareholders.

Ternary is moving towards legally adopting a structure in which the perspective of shareholders is integrated along with that of the staff, the industry that Ternary is a part of, and the broader social purpose that the organization is pursuing.

“So it changes the nature and the point of the organization from being all about returning profit to shareholders to instead being about finding its own path in life,” says Robertson. “(It’s about) integrating the needs of all these different parties, and figuring out what (the organization) needs to be in the world.”

The democratic approach at Ternary is also characterized by a working structure that is aligned with what is naturally needed.

Robertson points out that structure often becomes bureaucratic and useless but the answer isn’t necessarily less structure, which can lead to people “spinning their wheels” because no one knows how decisions are to be made.

Instead, Ternary employs a helpful, supporting structure.

That structure coupled with transparency leads to greater efficiency in the workplace as everyone knows who makes what decisions and how they get made; they also know exactly where to go to get their feedback integrated.

“Everybody can get their key insights and their input in the right place quickly without a lot of politics going on,” says Robertson.

Working democratically does have its challenges.

“If anything, most of the people here will tell you it’s more painful, not less, to work in an organization that is healthy, democratic,” says Robertson, adding that this isn’t the pain of frustration or inability to do anything.

“It actually tends to surface all the stuff that isn’t working that well in the organization and make you deal with it. That’s hard.”

People aren’t able to hide behind the victim mentality and blame the workplace for their difficulties.

“When you know you have a voice, and you have a way with dealing whatever comes up, it can challenge you,” says Robertson. “That can be painful.”

The potential for burnout exists as a result, although the mechanism are in place, such as the flexibility to deal with issues and peer support, to help employees respond in a healthy way. There have been a few people, though, who have chosen to move on to a less taxing environment.

Robertson adds that the challenges fostered by working democratically can ultimately be more rewarding, however.

“It’s more joyous, there’s more joy and more suffering at the same time.”

Ternary’s organizational model can be linked to some basic business benefits the company has seen, according to Robertson. For instance, Ternary has been one of the fastest growing privately held companies in the region for three years in a row.

In terms of human benefits, the company has won awards for being one of the best places to work in the region. It recently was one of seven organizations in the world honoured with the Spirit at Work Award for inviting and embracing the full human spirit in the workplace.