Challenges and perspectives of an innovative human project at the DECATHLON Group

Betton-Rennes, enjoying sports at a Decathlon Village

There is plenty to read, see and hear on the liberated company concept. But is it the company or rather the employees who need liberating? There is a lot of talk about changing the “traditional” managerial model, but do companies that have undergone a form of liberation have a real model to offer, or just the personal stories of pioneering entrepreneurs who took the risk of turning part of their power over to their employees?

We asked ourselves all these questions before we took a move one way or another. Furthermore, are there any serious methods for measuring the liberation of talents, responsibilities and energies? It’s not as easy as it looks at first. We thought that one thing was for sure – we had to solve a complex equation combining a powerful project (vision), a clear framework (rules of the game), freedom to act (confidence in oneself, in others and in the organization) and responsibility (decision-making autonomy). Once this basic premise was defined, the need to have a method, or even a “technology” as Bernard Marie Chiquet likes to call Holacracy, appeared essential to us.

Indeed, proposing freedom and responsibility requires work on the organization and on the framework of the game, which has to change. You cannot just decree liberation through more collaborative work and installing sofas in the offices, you must go farther in your reflections on the very structure of the organization. You have to define a clear framework that is strict but flexible, enabling everyone to fully understand and accept the scope of their responsibility, and then, more importantly, bring about change in real time as needed in the department.

Entreprise libérée ou « libérante » ?
Les Saisies, a team hiking to the Col de la Croix de Pierre: the sky is clear for now, but will we reach our goal

Having laid down the initial premises, we knew that the change would probably be violent, destabilizing for the team, certainly costly in energy at first, in human investments, unless we were to take “baby steps” that exclude taking any risks, and possibly excluding any real progress. Thus, with the 30 employees at the “Decathlon Villages” real estate development department, we decided to begin to morph into Holacracy in March 2015. It was rough at first, and it received a varied welcome depending on people’s personalities – the method really is complicated, there is a specific vocabulary and the IT tool can be a bit off-putting for non-English speakers… But the leaders pushed forward because they were convinced that the adventure was worth the effort and that we were lucky to have an opportunity to have such an experience.

We were soon so deeply immersed in the process that we probably did not realize how far we were going… This is all the more significant in that, looking back, we can reasonably say that our management was already one step ahead before moving forward into this new era…

Entreprise libérée ou « libérante » ?
Bordeaux-Mérignac, March 2015, first contact with Holacracy

Even though we had been forewarned, we experienced the ups with the greatest pleasure and then suffered with the downs, like in any good athletic competition. We integrated, we progressed, we adapted and we rebuilt our department in holarchic mode. As we move forward, we have to admit that the switch is not as easy for the “old bosses”, who are forced to give up part of their prerogatives, as for the operational teams which, for the most part, have taken their authorities to heart and enjoy their autonomy, but have also discovered the difficulties of taking on responsibility. It is probable that not all Humans are built to take on total responsibility in a field of action, or at least that getting used to these new authorities is handled differently depending on people’s personalities. It is nonetheless certain that the lines are shifting, a wind of liberty and responsibility is progressively blowing over the group, tensions arise and are discussed, the process is settling into place and solutions to outstanding issues are found fairly quickly.

Entreprise libérée ou « libérante » ?
Paris CDG, July 2015, creation of four sub-circles

As our organization has been restructuring, small steps have been adding up and we have been learning to forego perfection, which is sometimes unachievable, or really too far off. Everybody is getting used to it, learning to respect other people’s authorities, sometimes stepping on toes and then pulling back, aware of the fact they are falling back on an old mode of operation that is progressively fading away.

We have to admit that there is still a kind of restraint, like bits of the former system lingering on, sometimes keeping certain subjects from being brought to the table for discussion, whereas the process encourages people to put all tensions forward and to deal with them. Skepticism when faced with the changes and particularities of the method has also had an effect, with doubts sometimes arising; the pessimist dig in their heels or adapt, go missing, but the group is moving forward and the results remain strong. Some people have been won over, others have been reassured; some of them are still skeptical, and we have not yet been fully won over to the Holacratic cause. Flexibility has certainly come at a price, that of patience, a kind of paradox that we need to resolve.

With the end of the year, the subject of assessment and compensation is coming up. We cannot avoid upgrading our practices in this area, running the risk of calling into question the empowerment process we have undertaken: we have innovated with new self-performance assessments and we get our employees involved in determining 50% of their salary reevaluation. The system can be somewhat challenging, but the lines are shifting and, in the end, we reach fairly coherent decisions.

We are already (or at last) coming to 12 months of practice, and we have not yet reached the end of the road, but we had imagined where we were going and we are getting there. We are pleased to have undertaken this process in a period that has been quite favorable, with a good team – these are key factors for success, that’s for sure. Training is ongoing, as the method has not yet been mastered by all; we have to persevere, explain and convince. The tactical and governance meeting are held frequently enough and we have a mastery of the conference calls that are becoming a weekly reflex.
It is not yet time for a final assessment, as the end of the road is not yet in sight – it will probably take close to another year to objectively assess our journey. In the current state of things, the group has not been totally won over, although a majority of our employees are in favor of pursuing this adventure. We have to continue training people, and we have to be able to step back from the method, without undermining it, making the adaptations needed to motivate everyone to the fullest. We also need to avoid concentrating too much on the technique, which we are increasingly fluent in, but rather we should focus on our goals, our performance and our progress.

We can now say that we have to admit that Holacracy has one major benefit – it shakes up organizations and personalities. Nothing will ever be the same as before this experience, we can continue or adapt, but it would be tricky to go back to the strictly conventional management system that we applied and respected for so many years. Little by little, roles have replaced missions in the job descriptions, and a Holacratic vocabulary is smoothly blending into our discussions. We have to deal with the tendency toward less direct communication, turning inward, and usefully replace individual interviews with collaborative meetings, which does not naturally come to mind immediately. We also have to keep working with other in-house departments in a more or less conventional way; the gymnastics involved can be tricky, but Holacracy is open to all kinds of adaptations and all kinds of codes.

We cannot conclude our story with an epilogue, because the adventure isn’t over yet. We have to continue exploring, adapting and verifying that this change in the managerial paradigm is good for us, or at least has more benefits than disadvantages, that it does not disturb the teams more than it liberates them, that the benefits are felt, that the former head of the pyramid that has gone from being hierarchical to being holarchic has indeed managed to let go and that leadership is built in ways other than through constraint. Whatever happens, this experience has been extraordinary in that it has created a real break with our old habits, and when we tell people about, we really realize how much this is the case.