Is Self-Organizing a Better Way?

The Athena Group is on a journey to find out

I vividly remember starting out as a new consultant about twenty years ago feeling validated about my choice to branch out on my own.  I was working at a client’s office and there was an organizational fight going on between the upstairs and downstairs staff about whether or not to keep the stairway lights on or off.  “I am SO glad I don’t have to be in the middle of that,” I thought to myself.  “This is why I choose to work for myself.”  

 About five years later as my own consulting practice began to grow bigger than what I could handle, I had a strategic choice to make.  Do I want to grow the business and add more people, or do I want to limit the work to what I can do?  I decided to grow the business – without any real business or management experience to speak of.  All I knew was what I didn’t want.  

I didn’t want to create an organization that felt suffocating, oppressive and petty.  The control and command, hierarchical environment - where the persons at the top are the saviors, parents, and hero’s/heroines of the organization - was not the model I wanted.  Nor did I want a hyper-collaborative environment where everyone was a decision maker for everything, and no decisions are ever made. Nor did I want to deal with people fighting about whether the stairway lights should be on or off.

In the absence of clearly articulating an alternative organizational model that I DID want, the interesting thing is the default structure for The Athena Group in the years following became the standard, hierarchical model where all of the power and decision-making was held with me at the top. And, without clearly articulating the organizational norms around handling tensions, personalities began to collide and simmer in nonproductive ways even among the most developmentally astute colleagues.      

“There has to be a better way,” I thought to myself.    Is it possible to create an organization with healthy relationships among highly capable and self-regulated adults?  it possible to be profitable, purpose-driven and share power throughout the organization?  Is it possible to be collaborative and still get things done? Is it possible that work with others can be life giving as opposed to life draining? 

I believe the answer is yes, and I am willing to stake my business on it.  Starting in 2019, The Athena Group has started the journey to reinvent itself into a self-organizing, for purpose enterprise.  What does that mean?  It means that I will be ceding my autocratic power as CEO to an organizational constitution that is purpose- and human-driven.  It means that we will all be adept at sensing and processing tensions in the organizational space and relational space, so that bumps in the road can be dealt with, rather than avoided or exploded.  It means that all members who contribute their time, resources, or money to the organization will get a “slice of the pie” through fair compensation or by building equity in the company.  And it means that even though I may still hold a majority share of the equity, I will not have power over others and their roles in the organization.

When I introduced this idea to someone who has worked with me for nearly a decade, she says to me “Are you sure you want to do this?” Others look at me inquisitively as if to say “Are you crazy?”  Maybe. I have spent most of my money and time on this company for the last twenty years. I am definitely a little scared. But there are few things in life that I am as sure about as I am about this.  I have taken this company as far as I can on my own.   If I were someone else -  more heroic, more focused, or more controlling - I suppose I could have made the company more profitable, more expansive, more successful than it is today.   But I guess it depends upon what you mean by successful.  Yes – I want our company to be profitable and have a stellar reputation. But that’s not all.  

From day one when I started the business, I wanted to design my work around my life, rather than design my life around my work.  I want this for everyone now.   To be truly successful, The Athena Group will be a place where people are deeply connected, make an impact, and have fun while being in their zone of genius. I think a self-organizing, for purpose enterprise is the framework that will help us get there.