This article is chapter eleven of TACSI’s Innovating Us series. Innovating Us is a look inside TACSI’s ongoing journey towards decentralisation. Each of the 11 chapters covers a different aspect of our experience, and some important things we wish we’d known before we started. The series was created over a number of interviews with CEO Carolyn Curtis and organisational development lead Euan Black, drafted by copywriter Cam Sullivan.
Innovating Us post-Covid: did we make the right decision to decentralise TACSI?
Innovating Us began under very different circumstances, both for TACSI and for the world.
We are now three years into our own journey of developing TACSI as a networked organisation centred around learning and impact. This means we don’t have a traditional hierarchy based on power and decisions. Instead, we have multiple hierarchies built on wisdom, experience and expertise. People don’t have line managers; rather, they are part of a peer circle. Our senior leaders are accessible parts of the connected team and we distribute risk and responsibility throughout our organisation.
The transition away from a traditional hierarchy to a networked model has been eventful and nothing like what we expected. Our original intention with Innovating Us was to give a personal account of this decentralisation journey – to offer ‘a light and a compass’ to other business leaders who were looking to do the same. We had started our journey with questions: does the current hierarchical system of running a business work? Is there a better way? The series was intended to show how our search for answers progressed, with each of the 10 chapters devoted to a key learning.
COVID-19 has transformed all of this; organisational change is a very different conversation now. No matter the size or makeup of your organisation, it will have faced unprecedented hardship this year. For TACSI, it’s represented the ultimate test of our fledgling decentralised model – we’ve been discovering whether or not our big gamble has paid off.
When risk becomes reality
In times of crisis, an organisation’s culture reveals itself. During the pandemic, we’ve seen numerous hierarchical organisations fall victim to their own business models, unable to adapt quickly enough to the rapidly changing conditions. The problems of the hierarchy have only been made more prominent by the cascading emergencies of pandemic, lockdown and economic meltdown. We have seen that, without an authentic, embodied culture, a business will not be able to look after its people, its productivity and its financial health at the same time.
Our experience at TACSI has been quite different. The crisis shone a light on the intentional work we’ve done in our culture. It was made plain that authentic relationships, trust, self-mastery and communication – the cultural ‘connective tissue’ – were the things our organisation needed most. We had collectively invested a lot of heart and soul into ours, and the benefits were clear. The systems we already had in place proved well-adapted to absorbing the shocks and finding new ways to work. We’ve managed to stay connected, and to keep TACSI moving in a healthy direction. Our networked structure has even allowed us to identify opportunities we wouldn’t have been able to recognise otherwise – for example, an offshoot project of Family by Family is showing promise for a completely different way to deliver support to families remotely. We’ve only been able to respond and adapt like this because there was nothing in our structure preventing it. Our networked model has been our greatest asset – it has allowed us to find resilience and even success in crisis.
This isn’t to say that everything has gone smoothly or easily; we have stared down the same existential abyss as every other business. But how we dealt with the decisions which had to be made – especially the hard ‘what-if’ decisions – was made infinitely more manageable by our decentralised systems. As an example, we distributed our risk management strategy. We got the whole organisation together and worked out what we wanted to happen if TACSI’s position became untenable, and what the triggers for that position would be. There was no high-level intrigue or waiting for the axe to fall; we all moved ahead with a clear understanding of where we were going and what our options were, and productivity barely faltered.
We’ve also both had to take mental health leave during this time (along with a number of our colleagues). The all-consuming nature of the crisis – including its toll on our personal lives and self-care – brought us very close to breaking point. But again, our decentralised systems got us through. The network distributed and absorbed the work and the stress of two significant leadership roles, and we got the recovery time and the support we needed to come back. It’s hard to imagine this happening in a hierarchical workplace. (It was also a valuable lesson for us not to backslide into hierarchical thinking in taking on all of the responsibility rather than distributing.)
A better way forward
In sharing Innovating Us with you now, in a world being shaped by pandemic, our perspective is different. In many ways, the crisis has fast-tracked us to a position of much greater certainty. A number of hypotheticals have become realities, and our initial questions have been answered very clearly.
No, the current hierarchical way of organising a business doesn’t work.
Yes, there is a way to do it better.
This certainty is a significant step for us as an organisation. While we wouldn’t say that the journey is ‘complete’ – we will always be learning and evolving – we now feel that TACSI has entered the next stage of maturity as a networked organisation. Everything we’ve built over the last few years has been put to the ultimate test, and it works.
If you’ve been feeling the overwhelming stress of leading an organisation through COVID-19 (we certainly have), we hope this series offers an opportunity for change. If, like us, you’ve questioned how organisations are run, we hope Innovating Us offers some clarity and guidance – we hope it’s still ‘a light and a compass’.
But, more than that, we hope it offers confidence and encouragement to take the first step. Decentralising is difficult, but we firmly believe that it’s the way forward in the post-COVID world. It can be done, it works, and it’s absolutely worth it.