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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Traci Fenton on Freedom at Work

Traci Fenton on Freedom at Work


1. We’re here with Traci Fenton to talk about freedom at work. Tell us what you are passionate about these days.

I’m Traci Fenton, I’m the founder and CEO of WorldBlu and WorldBlu is the largest collection if you will of organizations in the world committed to practicing freedom and democracy in the workplace. We have a very clear way of measuring that that we’ll talk about in a moment. So what I’m passionate about is creating environments that unleash human potential by bringing more democracy and freedom into our workplaces.


2. I’m curious how do you start creating a sense of freedom on software teams or companies of any size.

Fifteen years ago I started WorldBlu and that was my question. But really I was also driven by the desire to understand what democracy is and how that could affect our workplaces. Most people, when they hear the word “democracy”, they think it means majority voting or majority rule and that’s not true. That’s not what democracy is; that’s a way of making a decision. So I spent literally a decade travelling all over the world, meeting with the leading practitioners of democracy in organizations, in politics, in education, studying the classics, really understanding what democracy is. And out of that, what I found, is that there are ten principles that create a democratic system. And that’s what democracy is: it’s a system, just like your body is a system.

Those ten principles are things like transparency, accountability, choice, the balance of the individual and the collective, dialogue and listening, reflection and evaluation. When you have all ten principles operationalized in your organization, you will have a democratic system. And what’s so powerful about that is that it unleashes potential in people, which helps drive more innovation, contributes to competitive advantage and contributes to engagement. And all of that – yes, it’s soft, but as some of us might know it impacts the bottom line. So it’s going to drive performance, it’s going to drive efficiency, you don’t need to have so many layers of management and hierarchy because you are more flat, more decentralized and leadership is distributed. So that is really how these ideas of freedom and democracy in the workplace work.


3. Can you show us what freedom looks like? Maybe a real life example, like what is the experience of the employees in such a company?

That’s such an important question! So we talked about freedom at work. You can feel really amorphous but who is actually doing it and how does it contribute to the bottom line? Like I mentioned briefly before, part of WorldBlu does is we certify companies based on these ten principles and how well they are operationalizing the ten principles at an individual leadership and systems and processes level. So some of the companies that we’ve certified as democratic workplaces include Zappos, such many of us have heard of, but also companies you may not have heard of, such as DaVita or HCL Technologies, NixonMcInnes, WD-40 – these are all companies practicing democracy in the workplace.

Let me give you a story, an example of a company that transitioned from the command and control model of business which is you just relate to the model that most of us still run our organizations on, into a democratic model. One of my favorite stories is DaVita. DaVita is a very large Fortune 500 company - 35.000 employees. They are in the healthcare industry, they provide dialysis services. Most of the time, when people think democracy in the workplace, they think it’s not scalable, it can’t work with large companies. How will that work? DaVita is an example of how it can work in large companies and be scalable. Back in 1999, DaVita was on the edge of bankruptcy. It was under investigation by the SEC. They had very low employee morale, low engagement and their senior executives were jumping ship, they didn’t want to work there anymore.

So they brought in a new CEO named Kent Thiry and Kent Thiry said “We have to stop thinking of ourselves as a company and we need to start thinking of ourselves as a democratic community.” So what do you do if you have a democratic community? First of all, you don’t have a CEO, you have a Mayor and that kind of changes the dynamic and that feeling - being a Mayor is about the service, service to others. What else do you do? Of course, you give power to your people, you give voice to your people. They started having voting on certain strategic directions and choices, they distributed decision making out to the front-lines. They had town hall meetings with authentic conversation, Q&A. I’ve sat through several of their town halls and it was absolutely fascinating.

They decentralized power from corporate out to their 1600 clinics across the country. It was all these little things that led to truly creating this freedom centered democratic environment and they shifted their model. Here, ten years later or so, they went from the edge of bankruptcy to now being a Fortune 400 company, the leader of their industry, six billion dollars in annual revenue, Employer of Choice in this industry and a really wonderful model of how this can work.


4. What does freedom at work look like at the individual level? What is the experience of an employee?

I think at an individual level, there is an accountability that comes with freedom at work. Working in freedom requires that you as an individual, first of all, need to have a sense of self-worth. What I found is freedom at work isn’t for everybody, not everyone is ready to be in a democratic environment, a lot of people thrive in command and control. That’s changing of course with the millennial generation; they want to work more in these democratic environments, but it really comes down to worth. I had to learn a lesson with this: we’d hired someone on our team and she came in, joined the team and we said “Hey, it’s freedom at work. This doesn’t mean free for all. There is discipline, we work democratically, we’re communicating, we’re decentralizing power.” But she really struggled with it. She came from a traditional command and control background and suddenly no one was there telling her what to do every day, no one was creating a chain of command that she had to report to. She had to self-organize, she had to self-manage, she had to shift the way that she was going to perform – kind of a ROW concept for those people out there who might know what ROW is – results only work for this environment. She wasn’t able to step into that.

Now to her credit, in the process of thinking all that through, what she realized was she kept thinking “Who am I to set my own schedule? Who am I to set my own goals and go for these things? “ So it was the devil of self-worth tapping our shoulder saying “You’re not good enough to do this.” And had she had a greater sense of self-worth and self-trust, she would have thrived. And after about six months, we just realized more she realized that she wasn’t really going to thrive in that freedom-centered culture.

So it was a good learning lesson for me and I think it requires self-worth and self-confidence or it requires individuals are willing to say “I’m going to work on this.” It’s not like everyone is perfect working in a democratic company, but you create the conditions that help people develop their voice, that help people develop their confidence. I think that’s really the goal. This particular individual felt called to go do something else and kind of reverted back to a little bit more of a traditional management background and that’s fine.

So I think to your question, it really is about personal accountability, personal growth and willingness and with that, of course, comes the joy and fun and happiness and engagement and meaning in a way that you just can’t experience in a command and control organization.


5. How do team’s growth goals fit in this style? What does it look like? How does it work?

As far as I know, looking at our members which are in 80 countries worldwide, they still have goals. One of the key principles of organizational democracy is accountability. So again, freedom or democracy doesn’t mean free for all or laissez faire; you are still going to have goals and there is different ways that organizations do that. I know even at my company, WorldBlu, we have certain goals and deadlines we’re working to meet, but then we also recognize that some things need to unfold on natural time. So we’re all going to work on those things and let them unfold without having to push, push, push. I think that is a distinction with the democratic environment: being able to have those performance metrics, but the energy around it isn’t about driving and pushing and the control. It’s more of an energy of grace, of unfoldment. That requires a certain level of personal discipline, it requires the discipline as a leader to not be all about thinking about leadership as about driving and command and control. So it’s a subtle dynamic, but once you get it, things really click powerfully.


6. What does this look like on teams of say size 10 to 15 which is very common for our community of software developers?

It can look like all kinds of different things. What I love about the way that we’ve defined organizational democracy, is it’s principle-driven and not practice-driven. So a practice that a DaVita of 35.000 people might do, for a principle of let’s say reflection-evaluation might look different in an organization like NixonMcInnes, in Brighton, England. They are an organization of about 10 to 15 individuals. They do a couple of cool things; let me tell you how they operationalize their principle, the democratic principle of reflection and evaluation. They do this in multiple ways, but let me tell you 2 stories that they do.

The first thing is they have something called happiness buckets, and on the way out the door, from work every day, there are these 3 buckets: one bucket is full of tennis balls, one bucket has a frowning face drawn on the bottom of the bucket and then another bucket has a happy face. At the end of the day, people pick up a tennis ball and it’s simple: do you feel happy when you’re leaving work or do you feel sad or unhappy? And you drop the tennis ball in whichever bucket that you are feeling. They track this over time and they track it to performance metrics. They kind of see “How are we doing?" Obviously, if there are more balls in the unhappy bucket, we need to be having a conversation, like what’s going on. Their CEO (NixonMcInnes) and I have talked at times and sometimes the company is struggling or there is some uncertainty, maybe there are some balls in the not happy bucket, but on the whole, they are in the happy bucket. Why? Because they are a very democratic workplace, the people feel good.

So that’s one example of the principle of reflection – evaluation. Let me tell you another thing they do that I think is really cool that small organizations can also do. They have something they do I think it’s on about a monthly basis and it’s called “the church of fail” and what they do is they go into one of their conference rooms, they organize all the chairs to be like pews, so you are in a “church of fail” and one by one people get up at the front of the room and they can confess their failure. So they talk about “Hey, this is what I did, this is kind of how I messed it up and this is what I learned as a result.” And it’s an opportunity for everyone to hear, everyone to learn together, to not have a blame culture, to have an accountability culture, but not a blame culture. At the end of them speaking, everyone stamps their feet, clap their hands and the person sits down. So it’s a wonderful way to reflect on what they are doing to evaluate how they are learning, but also to make it really fun and really engaging.


7. What would be let’s say the first 2 or 3 things that a group should do to become more democratic starting from a typical type of environment?

I think a really good place to start is – well, let me say it this way: there is an order to the principles I think (the ten principles) and I’m writing about this in my new book. And of course, the first principle is purpose and vision. This isn’t rocket science, but you have to have a clear purpose and vision. The second principle operationalizes dialogue and listening. It’s creating environment where authentic honest dialogue can happen and then from there you really can open up into transparency and I think a great practice of transparency is something that maybe your viewers are familiar with but it’s called “open book management” and it’s the idea of opening up the financials within the organization to share the picture. This isn’t just opening up the financials once a year, even once a month, but as much as possible having these key metrics that are going to enable everyone on your team to be able to make better decisions.

I’d say, if you don’t have open books, it’s kind of the equivalent of someone saying “Go run to the grocery store and buy a bunch of groceries, but you don’t know how much you have in your bank account to spend on buying groceries. We ask our employees every day to be making decisions without understanding the full picture, including the financial picture. Some of the WorldBlu certified companies not only open the books, they also open up salaries, so they are very transparent and open with salaries and that helps cut down on feelings of unfairness or rumors about who’s making what. Not everyone is comfortable with that, not everyone is ready for that – that’s ok. One of our organizations called Menlo Innovations they do salary ranges. So everyone knows what it takes to get to a certain salary range, all of that is transparent and then people know what folks make within those different ranges, but not specifically to a tee.

But I really encourage that open book management because it then ripples out to impact all the other principles too.


8. What are some of the worst things that impede the sense of freedom at work?

The worst thing that impedes freedom at work is fear at work. We don’t talk about this very often, we don’t understand that fear is the driver underneath all of our bad decisions. Fear is what drives the command and control environment. Some people think that fear is a good thing and it can be for very short motivation burst. An example of that would be if you’re a gazelle running from a cheetah in the African savannah and you are afraid for your life, what do you need to do? - You need to run! Hopefully, if that gazelle gets away from the cheetah, what does it do? It slows down and probably shakes in some way, shakes it off and it goes about its business. But research shows that when we’re in a state of fear, the peripheries of our brain shut down and we become myopic. So that’s ok for the gazelle and those few moments while it’s running. It’s not going to sit there and be like “Hum, what should I do to get away from this cheetah?” it’s just needs to run, it just needs to react.

Sometimes fear can help us “OK, I need to light a fire under my butt and get this going! OK!” but then we need to relax and not stay in that state of fear or we are not going to able to think it in infinite and greater possibilities. We don’t realize how much fear drives us. It drives our leadership style, it’s at the core of our mindset and then that ripples out to impact the way we design our organizations. So if we are in a mindset of fear, we also want to control and what happens then is we create those command and control structures that limit people, limit their potential and that then impacts culture, which are the behaviors that come out of that design. So I think being awake to fear, is the most important thing that we can do.


9. How do you break your company out of a culture of fear?

I like to do something that’s called the power question. The power question helps us in a very constructive and positive way to determine if we’re in that mindset of fear or in the mindset of freedom. I’m writing about this in my book, but I call it the power question because it allows us to see what we’re giving power to: freedom or fear, possibility or fear, love or fear, whatever or fear. And the power question is basic, it’s this “What would I do if I weren’t afraid?” and I’ve been asking this to business leaders all over the world. I’ve asked them to think of a challenge that they are facing in the workplace or maybe in the personal life too and apply the power question “How would you solve this problem if you weren’t afraid?” and watch and see the results.

An example for you: one of the companies that is a WorldBlu certified democratic workplaces, called HCL Technologies. A 90.000 person organization, 25 countries they are in, IT and they became a democratic workplace in 2005, after a long history of being command and control. So they became democratic in 2005 and the democratic system was really tested for them in 2008 when the financial crisis hit. They came to a point where they realized “We’ve got to find a way to save 100 million dollars or we’re going to have to lay people off.” So the typical fear-based response would be maybe you get a few senior executives in the room, secret society, they just make decisions about who they are going to cut and you let people know and there is that feeling, that atmosphere of fear because everyone knows something is going down - and who is going be hit? But in a freedom-centered organization what they do is they said “What would we do if we weren’t afraid? – We’d open up! We’d go to our people, we’d ask them: How can we solve this problem, how can we fix this? What can we do?” So that’s what they did – if we weren’t afraid, let’s ask the people.

They created all these online forums where people could submit ideas. They had hundreds of ideas submitted and they acted on 76 of those ideas. As a result, they didn’t just save 100 million dollars, they save 260 million dollars and their people felt empowered, they felt like they had a voice, they felt they felt a greater sense of that ownership mentality, no one was laid off. So that is really how something like the power question can work in small and very large ways.


10. How can we start applying Freedom at work and what’s your vision for WorldBlu?

I think we do need help learning to apply these principles and these ideas and that what WorldBlu’s here for. We offer something really fun called Blu Camp which teaches CEOs and executives, HR executives, heads of talent, how to actually implement the 10 principles in their workplaces. We do this whole thing called Blu Camp where we take leaders outdoors couple it with high ropes, zip lines, climbing walls, because the whole idea is really understanding how to make decisions based on freedom rather than fear. That’s a really fun thing that we do for executives, in addition to conferences and membership and all the other things we do. Our vision is to see 1 billion people working in freedom within my lifetime (hopefully I’m going to live a nice long life), but that’s what really our vision is. The way we measure that is by the number of companies that become certified democratic workplaces. I’d love to see more of your viewers join us in this and get their organizations certified as democratic workplaces.

Nov 22, 2012