VSHN’s Culture - How we do things around here

Since our founding in 2014, VSHN’s culture has been based on transparency, shared responsibility, and inclusivity, with a focus on leadership by every individual VSHNeer, rendering traditional leadership roles obsolete. It is widely recognized that such an ecosystem demands significantly more from each individual to function effectively. While there is a broad understanding at VSHN that a classic power hierarchy is not desirable as a leadership system, we often find that the level of individual participation and personal development required by our system is not yet being met. Even though we have achieved a lot in this system over the years, these circumstances sometimes lead to situations where VSHNeers are unclear about what to do, resulting in major business obstacles or frustrations among VSHNeers not being addressed.

Recognizing the need to enhance and maintain a common basic understanding of VSHN’s way of collaborating and working — our culture — we document our current understanding of how things are and should be based on our beliefs (see The Evolution of Culture below).

While not everyone needs to be an expert in all these topics, a shared understanding, commitment, and engagement from every VSHNeer are essential for the flourishing and further development of our culture. Of course, reading documentation is far from enough, but let’s start somewhere, here.

VSHN’s Culture in a Nutshell

At VSHN, we negate traditional power hierarchies, favoring a culture of shared leadership and decision-making that relies on reason, not rank. Our semi-autonomous teams and team independent roles carry the freedom and responsibility to do the work that’s needed, deciding on the 'how' themselves. We operate iteratively, delivering value and resolving issues one step at a time. Transparency is fundamental in our operations, making information available and progress visible to all who need it, while respecting confidentiality when required.

Key Aspects Where VSHN is Different

The following 5 key aspects are intended to give you an overview of how VSHN specifically differs from what you might be used to from your time before VSHN.

We think that this currently overlaps with and extends our Company Values. We will figure out if this needs to be merged at some point. Think of it as hopefully a more concrete addition and description of our values.

There Are no Bosses Who Decide

Decisions are powered by reason and involve affected people, not rank or position.

At VSHN, we embrace non-hierarchical principles for Decision Making and leadership. The power to influence decisions lies with reasoned arguments and not with people in specific roles or ranks, and we involve the people responsible and those affected by the decision. It’s crucial that decisions are made, and therefore equally crucial that someone takes the initiative to drive them; otherwise, they simply won’t occur. These principles apply at all levels within the organization.

More on this here.

Leadership in Every Chair

The act of being aware, identifying what is needed, and insisting it gets addressed. We empower everyone to do so.

Leadership at VSHN is not limited to a specific role or rank. It’s seen as the act of recognizing what is needed and ensuring it gets addressed, whether proactively or in response to current issues. This involves bringing people together, fostering a common understanding of what is needed, and persistently driving progress until the need is adequately met. It’s about mindsets, skills, methods, and how you engage and inspire people — all of which can be learned, trained, and practiced. When people drive things forward and make happen what is needed, this is leadership in action.

Each individual’s personal leadership style is defined by how they navigate these challenges. Some roles may necessitate more explicit leadership on certain topics, ensuring that crucial decisions are made.

More on this here.

Semi-Autonomous Teams

Teams have the freedom and responsibility to do what’s needed to create value and to decide how.

Each team is allocated a specific area of VSHN, providing them with a domain of influence, work, and decision-making. This freedom to decide and do things how they think works best also comes with the responsibility to do so effectively, contributing to the overall purpose and objectives of VSHN (see Alignment). Therefore, such a team is semi-autonomous. An important factor is that the potential workload usually exceeds the team’s capacity, making prioritization essential - time is made by selecting the right tasks. Balancing work from different sources and finding the equilibrium between operational work and improving team organization and working methods is crucial. It’s never just one thing or the other; it’s usually both and more, and breaking down larger efforts into manageable pieces for iterative work is a common approach. Teams often have dedicated roles such as Product Owners, Facilitators, or Scrum Masters to help in finding this balance and fostering continuous improvement.

Those who delegate a domain to the team retain overall accountability, which means if the team encounters issues they can’t address on their own, or if they fail to recognize them, the delegator may need to provide support, empower the team, or even object to current activities. The delegator must continuously maintain a high-level understanding of whether the team is functioning and delivering as expected and required.

More on this here.

Delivering Value Iteratively

Creating value and addressing issues, one iteration at a time.

At VSHN, we devote time to what brings us and our customers forward now, delivering tangible value early. We identify one thing out of this complex world, agree on a common understanding of this need, and then find and implement a solution that addresses the need by adding increments of features or solutions, in an iterative manner. We validate if it works and then proceed to the next iteration. Less but sooner is usually better than more or perfect too late — long periods of work without obtaining stakeholder feedback or verifying if it truly functions or improves the situation isn’t acceptable — not in product development or customer projects, nor in addressing or organizational challenges.

Full Transparency

Proactive communication and easy access to all information for those who need it. Confidentiality is respected when necessary.

We provide open access to all information within VSHN, unless confidentiality is required. This commitment to transparency means we make our work visible, document our progress, record our decisions, and explain how we arrived at them. Not everyone is expected or required to read everything, as this can be overwhelming. Instead, it’s about making information readily available when needed, and proactively communicating essential information to those directly affected. This principle fosters an environment where progress is evident, feedback can be acquired early, others can take over anytime and continuous improvement is achievable. We value and encourage authenticity in our work, with an emphasis on producing visible, tangible effective results rather than merely appearing busy.

The Evolution of Culture

Our unique organizational culture didn’t appear overnight, there were also never big changes like an "agile transformation" or similar, as VSHN always was more or less like this. From our start, we avoid traditional hierarchical power structures in favor of collaboration and mutual decision-making. With a small team, ad-hoc, collective decisions were feasible. As we grew, we began to articulate our values, which continue to guide our behavior, actions, and decision-making at all levels.

Company culture is the organic essence of an organization, shaped by beliefs, values, attitudes, and practices. It can be observed but not enforced and naturally emerges from our collaboration, communication, decision-making, experiences of success and also failures.

In its simplest terms, to change culture, things need to happen differently, and things happen when people take responsibility, act and get things done. As by our definition of leadership this can and should be anyone. Culture change is an organic process that emerges naturally when individuals and teams start behaving and doing things differently in alignment with new or altered beliefs, values, and practices. It’s not simply a matter of issuing a mandate or directive; it must be lived and experienced on a day-to-day basis across the organization.

Anticipated Impact

We believe business benefits of such models are significant and align with our vision at VSHN. They promote agility, innovation, and responsiveness, allowing us to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and to take advantage of emerging opportunities. By decentralizing decision-making and promoting leadership at all levels, we can tap into our collective knowledge and skills more effectively, leading to more informed decisions and innovative solutions. Though, we acknowledge that sometimes how we do things at VSHN can also be more time consuming, frustrating and even slow us down — let’s improve!

Sociocracy 3.0 at VSHN

The principles of Sociocracy 3.0 (S3) and a lot of its patterns (see them as tools) resonated with us, providing practical guidance that aligned with our values and helped us navigate our growth. However, we never strictly adhered to any singular framework nor is S3 a framework. While we utilize various approaches and tools — S3 just being one toolbox, we prioritize what is effective and aligned with our objectives, regardless of the method.

People Make the System Work

At VSHN, we recognize that our system and culture, built upon shared leadership and transparency, are a considerable departure from traditional work environments. Such a model requires increased engagement, proactive behavior, and continuous personal development from every individual, surpassing the skills needed for operational tasks. However, it also offers a sense of empowerment, autonomy, and personal growth, along with shared responsibilities that can alleviate the overall mental burden for individuals. We also don’t have better-paid roles (like bosses) that receive higher pay solely to take the blame.

We don’t expect everyone to grasp or fully implement all the practices described here immediately, but it is crucial that there is a baseline alignment with our values and principles for collective success. At VSHN, we have roles that specifically focus on organizational aspects and governance, such as our Scrum Masters, Facilitators, People and Culture Roles and more. We believe in supporting every individual, providing opportunities for growth, and even facilitating mindset shifts on these topics.

While our culture fosters personal development and job satisfaction, we acknowledge that it may not align with everyone’s aspirations. This acknowledgment doesn’t reflect a failure on anyone’s part but rather illustrates the importance of recognizing the fit between individuals and their work environment. Our ultimate aim is to cultivate a setting where individuals can thrive, grow, and make significant contributions—whether that’s within VSHN or beyond.

The big risk in this

There’s a risk in such a system, a risk of a vacuum where no one drives decisions or activities within reasonable time — anyone leads could mean no one leads. However, the real issue often lies not in the absence of a person deciding, but in the absence of leadership driving the topic to the decision point and beyond that. This applies equally in traditional power hierarchies when your boss is overloaded and doesn’t drive certain things.

A safeguard here is understanding that when responsibility is delegated, the Delegator remains overall accountable (refer to Semi-Autonomous Teams). Simply put, if the team really wouldn’t care enough, the Delegator has to support and empower the team to be able to care and can’t look away. Such dynamics should invariably surface during Domain Reviews.

We are a Business After All

We need to generate enough revenue to be a great employer, provide attractive benefits, and ensure our financial sustainability. However, the reality is more complex than this.

At VSHN, we operate in a competitive market. Our tasks involve attracting and retaining customers, generating revenue, and thus preserving our financial stability. While one of our priorities is to value and nurture our VSHNeers, we also have the responsibility to strike a balance between their well-being and the overall financial health of our organization. Our focus lies in operating as a successful business, not driven solely by profit, but also because it allows us to realize our vision, create an enriching work environment, and cultivate opportunities for personal and professional growth.

When making decisions, we recognize that personal preferences or subjective feelings alone are not sufficient grounds to dismiss proposed tasks or actions. Instead, we heavily rely on reasoned arguments, especially when there is a potential risk to the organization or its ability to fulfill commitments. While individual preferences are important, in our decision-making, it’s about the arguments that support our ability to attract and retain customers, generate adequate revenue, and maintain our competitive position. By adhering to this approach, we can strike a balance between individual preferences and the collective success of our business. That being said, while customers are our priority and the key to our success, we will not compromise our organization’s health; they are not a priority at any cost.

More on this here.

What’s Next?

Frequently Asked Questions

You might have many questions, both about your daily work life and after reading all this. This is normal, and a great starting point to learn more. Perhaps your question is already (partly) answered in the VSHN Culture FAQs.

Further Self-Learning

This page serves as an overview of how we do things around here. The whole handbook attempts to document how we behave and do things at VSHN. There are links to other handbook pages in the text above. While what exactly you should read about heavily depends on your level of experience, your role, and the tasks you currently have to perform, it might be a good starting point.

  • While reading about these concepts should greatly help to give you a good overview and base understanding of things, it’s known that training, exposure (actually having to do things), and learning from others' experiences are what really accelerates your personal development.

  • We encourage you to:

    • expose yourself, try leading smaller topics in your team, start taking responsibility to make things happen that need to happen — and while doing so, remember these concepts.

    • share your experiences with others.

    • invest in learning by taking internal (live or asynchronous) and external education, etc.

    • get facilitation help whenever you’re unsure or find an internal mentor on these topics.

More Guided Ways of Learning

We’re currently contemplating how we can make this more guided and offer fitting training for different levels of required skills, etc.