Here at Vivobarefoot we’re evolving into a new way of working. We call it living barefoot.

Living barefoot means more horizontal working, self-management, a focus on listening, inner feelings, openness and embracing tensions. And letting go of hierarchy, parent-child relationships, hyper-masculine stress and competition. As a result, we’ve swapped a vertical hierarchy of rigid teams for a more fluid network of autonomous ‘Circles’ formed around specific business needs.

Home Circles are where people reside for day-to-day ‘business’ and are looked after in terms of training, development and career progression.Project Circles form around cross-functional projects, with a Project Lead (more facilitator than manager) and a small, accountable Active Project Team.Yin Circles are where people gather to sense the overall health of the Vivobarefoot ecosystem, and create space for reflection and peer-to-peer coaching.

This approach relies on what we call ‘self-circle-system’ awareness: exploring and communicating how we show up individually, and actively using and respecting these insights in how we self-manage to live Vivobarefoot’s values. We’re swapping ‘control-manage’ for a ‘sense-respond’ ethos prioritising openness, autonomy and authenticity.

We could yabber about this for hours, but two ingredients have proven especially transformative and challenging: creating the space for teams to self-manage, and learning to communicate openly and authentically to allow self-management to thrive.

This post captures a few of our learnings. Helpful reflection for us, and hopefully useful insight and inspiration for others looking to journey towards becoming a more regenerative culture. For a more comprehensive case study of Vivobarefoot’s journey towards becoming a regenerative business, see Giles Hutchins’ latest book Leading by Nature, which includes a whole chapter dedicated to Vivobarefoot’s business and cultural transformation.

The Power of Autonomy and Honesty

Colleagues of all stripes have found increased autonomy, and the open communication underpinning it, to be really powerful.

More open, adult feedback has been incredibly insightful. For example, one Circle Lead learned that “killing people with kindness” had, in fact, been counterproductive. Most of their team were actually “very grateful for [more open] feedback and have flourished as a result. And then you realise that actually, who were you protecting? Were you protecting them from the difficult feedback, or were you protecting yourself from the difficult conversation?”

Horizontal autonomy also reduces the bureaucratic burden on Circle Leads to make decisions and constantly monitor work (micro manage). For instance, one Lead realised that by taking on extra work to ‘protect’ their team, they had not only been neglecting their personal needs, but also making their team feel guilty and unsure how best to help.

For people used to being ‘managed’, stepping into newfound freedom and trust to take the initiative and make decisions doesn’t necessarily come easy. But when it arrives, it transforms. We’ve heard many stories of people learning loads, growing in confidence and bringing more of themselves to work. Many have even reflected on how the shift from parent-child to adult-adult ways of relating at work is helping them show up more authentically and courageously in their personal lives, too.

Everybody, and Every Circle, is Different

Teething problems and uneven progress are inevitable, of course. Hierarchical management is ingrained into us from early on in life, so reframing it takes work.

The most consistent challenge has been creating appropriate space for people to take responsibility and make decisions in effective ways. Not hand-holding, but also not forgetting to inspire, coach and mentor. And unfortunately there isn’t a ‘how to’ guide for this stuff. At Vivo, we have found creating a ‘coaching culture’ to be helpful – here people listen and explore together by learning to subtly reframe conversations with a more appreciative, constructive and reflective approach. But ultimately everybody is different, so it’s more art than science.

Some of us at Vivobarefoot have sought more reassurance about making decisions and sometimes failing, whereas others have been ducks to water. Generally, we’ve found that pre-existing knowledge and experience helps people adapt more quickly, and have seen many ‘non-managers’ thrive with newfound autonomy.

While exciting for extroverts comfortable speaking up and taking the lead, we’ve also seen that living barefoot can be daunting for introverts, and/or those who do awesome work but are less comfortable leading without hierarchy. Making sure we properly capture and value different ways of contributing is an ongoing challenge.

Likewise, some Circles self-manage more effectively than others. In-person face time, timely feedback and space for reflection all contribute. So does exposure to our Evolution workshops, where we gather around the campfire in the ancient woodlands of Springwood Farm to dive deep into challenges around ways of working and transmuting tensions into learnings. Defined project leadership and responsibility for each member also adds clarity and accountability. And while Covid has made meeting face-to-face challenging, it has accelerated our ability to work independently.

Coaching conversations can help respond to these individual challenges. We have also found that a buddy network, through which people from all areas of Vivobarefoot support each other more freely, offers people more personal support.

Circles of sharing at Springwood Farm

Going Beyond the Circle

Living barefoot can be trickier between Circles than within Circles. Uncomfortable conversations are harder with people you don’t know as well or see as often, so reverting to hierarchy becomes more tempting. And because Circles develop at different speeds, expectations can differ across Circle boundaries – a problem we’re trying to address with more cross-functional networks.

There is a similar challenge at the ‘top’ of Vivobarefoot (hierarchical language is hard to eradicate). While Circle Leads (directors) have been really pleased to see senior colleagues relinquishing control, in practice it’s difficult to totally eradicate ‘control-manage’ tendencies, especially when the business experiences shocks like supply-chain ruptures due to conflict, Covid or climate challenges. As one colleague put it, people who “see themselves as bosses” have to work extra hard to “see themselves as servants.”

The reality is, we are likely to experience more and more business volatility on the road ahead, so the sooner we work on transforming ‘control-manage’ tendencies into ‘sense-respond’ across the entire business, the more agile and less bureaucratic we become. And another step towards regenerative business.

Reimagining Leadership

Experiencing these changes and challenges has redefined how we see leadership. Far from requiring less leadership, we now see that living barefoot means more of it, just in different forms.

Although we still have Circle Leads (directors), we’re seeing less ‘leading from the front’ and more leading ‘shoulder to shoulder’ at all levels. As we become better at communicating openly, holding space, embracing discomfort and empowering each other to be autonomous, we’re blossoming into an ecosystem of leaders. It’s been awesome to see. And we are not kidding ourselves, we are still at the early stages of this journey, and we know we have so much more to learn.

Our evolution into living barefoot is still young; many challenges and learnings lie ahead. But our culture is already more entrepreneurial, resilient and engaged. In a word, more ‘barefoot’.

For more on the Vivobarefoot journey towards becoming a regenerative business, see the book Leading by Nature. If you are interested in exploring where your own organisation is on this journey, you can find a Regenerative Organisation Reflective Tool and other useful tools, all free to download, here.

Head of Livebarefoot at Vivobarefoot Ashley Pollock and regenerative leadership coach Giles Hutchins co-authored this article.

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And find out more about Vivobarefoot’s journey here