Reinventing Business
Discovering Your Best Organizational Structure

Monday, February 3, 2014

Mindfulness and Holacracy

I just spent 7 days at Esalen doing a mindfulness meditation retreat. That was not my intent, but that's what it became, and during the last three days I took a workshop that ended up being about mindfulness meditation, which lead me to yet another insight about Holacracy.

In mantra meditation, you repeat a word or phrase, aloud or mentally, as a way to draw yourself into a meditative state. As a freshman in college I took Transcendental Meditation and practiced it quite regularly for several years. To me, that was what meditation meant.

Mindfulness meditation emphasizes attention to your immediate experience in the current moment. As such, it doesn't limit itself to sitting meditation -- you can be walking, eating, or doing just about anything as long as you are present with that experience, focused on it and not thinking about something in the past or the future.

In our first exercise we were directed to pay attention to ourselves, and what we were feeling in our bodies. In particular, we listened to all the sensations we were feeling. In that I found my revelation. At that moment I was sitting on a pillow on the floor, with my legs crossed in some approximation of what you always see. As I have never been particularly flexible my body was saying a lot of things to me. I realized that I had always believed that these sensations were to be ignored. The teacher pointed out that it takes significant energy to push sensations away. If your body talks back to you about that, you must then push the additional sensation away. Pretty soon everything is a cacophony of struggle. But "sucking it up, pushing through, no-pain-no-gain" is what I had been taught and I never questioned it to the point that it became unconsciously internalized.

The first thing that happened when I started paying attention to the sensations is that I decided things were way too noisy, so I found a more comfortable setup and had much better results for the rest of the class. If I had continued to just fight it, that's what my experience would have been -- struggling (of course, you can't always just change your physical situation and quiet things down. Sometimes you just have to pay attention to those things). Now I'm looking for other places where I've learned to unconsciously do battle with myself, and start paying attention to those places (Noticing something only starts the process. It would be wonderful if all we had to do is see something to make it release completely, but we don't seem to be wired that way; we have to unwind it a little bit at a time, with patience and persistence).

How does this relate to Holacracy? The fundamental "unit of motivation" in Holacracy is the tension, which is exactly what it sounds like. In conventional companies, tensions are just all those little annoying things we put up with, as in "that's just the way it is around here." Tensions are the little pains that we put effort into ignoring. In companies with lots of tensions, you put lots of your energy into just dealing with those and very little energy into being productive (Perhaps one could even create a model of the lifetime of a corporation based on the accumulation of tensions; when tensions pass a certain line, the productivity + innovation equation drops below sustainability. The reason corporate lifetimes are dropping so fast could then be conjectured: innovation has become much more important).

In Holacracy, we do the opposite. Tensions are central to the process, so we don't push them away, we pay attention to them and do experiments to see how to change them. As a result, instead of constantly accumulating things to drain our energies (that is, the tension + the effort to ignore that tension), we're constantly clearing tensions away so that our energies can be devoted to productivity and innovation.