21. Avoiding the Objections Death Spiral

Today’s lesson is about something we call “the objections death spiral”. It’s a death spiral because it begins innocently and each successive step seems logical, but in fact you are marching right off a cliff.

1. It often starts when someone improvises a proposal in a governance meeting (usually encouraged by the Facilitator). Remember, anything can be a starting proposal, but early proposals are rarely stated clearly, such as changes to Roles, Domains, or Policies.

For example, “We need to figure out when the next conference should be held.

So, some objections are raised.

2. The proposer, let’s call him Ryan, thinks that “objection” means he did something wrong. He feels put on the spot. Others observing this see the “bad” proposal, critical reactions, and difficult objection-testing as a painful waste of time. Clearly, Ryan needs to improve his proposals.

Everyone walks away thinking, “OK, that was unpleasant. We all need to learn more about how to propose things in governance by preparing proposals in advance.

3. And that's exactly what happens. The next time Ryan wants to propose something, he does homework. He goes online to learn more about the difference between tactical and governance meetings. He talks it over with colleagues. He wants to avoid repeating the pain from the last meeting.

Seems like a smart, self-directed, taking-ownership strategy. Learning is great, but doing it to avoid objections has a dark side. Because now, since Ryan has prepared his proposal in advance, he’s more likely to take any objections personally. It’s easy to become personally attached to a solution you’ve already worked through.

4. Since Ryan wasn't able to completely avoid objections, the ones that were raised were extra painful. Objection testing took more time and was more awkward. Integration felt even more awkward. Now, Ryan really wants to make sure he avoid objections in the future which means he invests even more time in trying to craft his next proposal.

5. Yet, despite his best efforts to think through every conceivable objection anyone could have, someone raises an objection. Ryan can't believe it. His pen drops from his hand, clattering on the table as he fights to comprehend what he did wrong. The meeting feels more and more like a battle of wills and less and less like a collaboration. Ryan resolves to work even harder on the next proposal.

On and on and on and on.

Proposals prepared in advance. Objections raised. Meetings get more and more painful until people give up objecting altogether.

This is the “objections death spiral”.

The new unconscious cultural norm becomes, “Prepare your proposals in advance and don’t object to someone else’s proposal.” If raising objections was uncomfortable before, now it’s socially dangerous.

From here, the whole governance process quickly (we can’t overemphasize how quickly this happens) reverts back to the old “wink wink nudge nudge” conventional office politics of the past.

With more time spent socializing proposals in advance, and no one standing up to object, the whole governance meeting process seems more and more like a formality. Smart people soon start asking themselves, “Why do we even have these governance meetings anyway?”

At this point, it’s a very good question. Why have the meetings if the governance records no longer reflect reality?

Before long, the organization's Holacracy practice stops in all but name. Interestingly, the choice to stop is usually not conscious. It just kinda happens. The death spiral has claimed another victim.

Of course, this whole analogy is an exaggerated doomsday scenario. Being slightly uncomfortable raising objections does not equal “your Holacracy practice is a hollow shell.” But, the progression is completely accurate. It does happen. Many circles and organizations are already somewhere on the death spiral spectrum. That is why encouraging others to raise objections is such an important habit to practice.

Almost all early governance meetings are uncomfortable. Almost all circles are unconsciously tempted to solve the problem by avoiding objections. Don't take the bait.

If you feel the need to prepare a proposal in advance, make sure it's because you need help translating your idea.

Don't do it to avoid objections. In the end, that just makes the learning take longer.