Is Organizational Democracy the Next Big Thing?

One of the great things about being an independent consultant is you get to meet a lot of really cool people.  I had that opportunity again today, when I met Traci Fenton, Founder and CEO of WorldBlu, a non-profit organization dedicated to a very unusual mission – organizational democracy.

WorldBlu was formed in 1997, and is pioneering a new mindset and philosophy of organizational design and culture.  WorldBlu believes we are in the midst of a shift in the way organizations are created and run, a transformation on the order of the evolution from the industrial age to the information age.  Think of the next wave of organizational structure as the democratic age.  Think of what Generation X and Y and the Millenniums want from a company – they want to play, to have a say in how things work.  The want to be part of the solution, not just be told what to do.  In short, they want a democratic process they can access and be part of…

So, at this point, you might be asking – what is organizational democracy, exactly? I asked the same question today.  Ms. Fenton describes it as follows: “organizational democracy is freedom within a business framework. It is a strategy for organizational design and a way of leading and managing an organization. It is achieved when an organization uses the principles of democracy to design the way it operates daily, cultivating a workplace that enhances employee potential achieving its business goals and positively impacting the community.”

Within a few minutes, I was hooked, and had a number of questions – some of them pretty hard-hitting.  I asked about efficiency, for instance.  When it comes to making decisions, most organizations today are command and control types – the boss makes a call, and off we go to execute.  How can democracy improve on that?  Traci agreed decisions can be made quickly in today’s organizations, but that doesn’t mean they have tremendous buy-in and support from the people who have to execute them.  In a democratic organization, while it may take a little more time to make a decision, the execution will more than make up for it, in terms of quality and speed.

Traci told me of a GE plant in the U.S. that has adopted many of the organizational democracy principles.  The plant has identified decisions as being of three types, what they call A, B and C decisions; A decisions are made unilaterally by the plant manager (although they only average about 12 per year).  B decisions are reached with input from appropriate stakeholders, and C decisions are made by the entire employee base.  Interesting concept – can you see that working in your company?

After a few minutes, my thoughts immediately went to leadership.  How would you lead differently in an organizational democracy?  What would the implications be for empowerment, delegation, coaching?  Does the leader take on an entirely different persona, more like an advisor or a true coach?  Something to think about, for sure.

WorldBlu publishes an annual list of the Most Democratic Workplaces around the world, and believes there’s a growing global movement towards creating workplaces that fully engage employees, giving them a voice and a stake in the outcome of their work.  WorldBlu believes great value — as well as a community — will emerge from shining a spotlight on organizations choosing freedom rather than fear, peer-to-peer relationships rather than paternalistic platitudes, and engagement rather than estrangement as their way of getting work done.

If you’re looking for a provocative topic to kick around with your team at your next staff meeting or offsite, check out the concepts and work being done by this small non-profit that is dreaming big (www.worldblu.com).  At the very least, it might get you thinking about what’s possible in your own company!