Chinese Delegation Visits WaTech to Learn about Holacracy, Office Space Management

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A group of 24 government and higher education officials from the Zhejiang Province of China visited WaTech on Sept. 28 to learn about a management structure practiced in part of the agency as well as how the state is re-thinking how it uses its office space.

Michael DeAngelo, deputy director of WaTech, welcomes the 24-member delegation from the Zhejiang Province of China.


The  delegation was led by Chen Zhong Chao,  the deputy mayor of the Municipality of Ningbo, a district of about 10 million people along the central east coast of China with the largest port in the world. The group was in Washington state for a week to take part in a training program at the University of Washington on innovation, and requested to come down to Olympia to learn firsthand about how the Holacracy® system of management is practiced here. The delegates had spent the previous two weeks in Los Angeles. 

Agency Communications Director Matt Bailey, who received the initial inquiry from the group's Los Angeles-based coordinator in early September, knew just where to turn - Michael DeAngelo, deputy director for Business and Digital Media Services division who pioneered Holacracy three years ago after joining the agency. Holacracy avoids a hierarchical management structure by empowering employees to make business decisions. Managers in essence serve as coaches rather than bosses.

DeAngelo in turn recruited Brooke Hamilton, statewide workplace strategies analyst for the state's Office of Financial Management, to join him in his presentation.

Hamilton first told the group that Washington state government includes 14 million square feet of office space, 13 million of which houses its 65,000 employees. "The way we work has changed, and technology has changed," she said, yet as far as workspace goes the model has not changed much in generations.

"We're still one size mis-fits all," she said. "We want to have a workplace that is more satisfied and productive."

The so-called "silver tsunami" of aging state workers also comes into play, with the average state employee now 48 years old. She said 90 state agencies are now working on initiatives to change their culture and modernize their workplaces to meet the demands of the changing workforce.

Translator Suelynn Wu-Gerbl reviews a slide with the enthusiastic delegation meeting at WaTech.

WaTech - and especially the space on the first floor in Business and Digital Media Services - is leading the way through Holacracy and other initiatives. DeAngelo said Holacracy begin as a pilot program with 20 participants. What they learned early on is that the business practice empowered employees to increase decision-making "by 10-fold." Issues brought up in meetings can now be resolved in as little as two minutes.

"The number of meetings has not gone down, but the meetings are much more focused," he said. A study by Harvard Business School is taking a look at how the agency practices Holacracy. The school is focusing on 300 employees, half of whom are involved with holacracy and the other half who are not, to determine how the method adds value as opposed to the traditional, authoritarian method of management practiced throughout most of state government.

The delegation asked plenty of questions through their translator and seemed enthused about what they heard.

In later conversations delegate leader Chen Zhong Chao said the group was "impressed and inspired."

 “We assumed that government operational systems in the US were static and established. We had no idea that governments in the US were innovating on things like work environment and how to organize work,” Chen said through a translator. "We are surprised to see that this level of organizational innovation is coming from the technology part of government.”

Added DeAngelo: "This was a rare opportunity to meet government leaders from another country to talk about innovation. It was obvious, from the conversation, that the delegation was blown away and thoroughly impressed by WaTech as a center of innovation. I think it’s even more amazing and exciting to know that when innovation thought leaders at UW are asked for examples of innovation in government, they think of WaTech."

DeAngelo gives the delegates a tour of the unconventional workspace in the Business and Digital Media Services area on the first floor of the 1500 Jefferson Building in Olympia.

DeAngelo writes a blog about Holacracy which has been translated into Mandarin - possibly one of the reasons the group was able to discover WaTech. He said he has also knows of two large, private companies in China that for two years now have been implementing Holacracy in their workplaces, one in the insurance industry and the other in manufaturing. 

Lei Tang, a Mandarin-speaking employee of WaTech who helped with some of the translation, said: "A couple of visitors mentioned that  they are very interested in adopting and practicing Holacracy in the Chinese government society, maybe by starting with some pilot groups like we do in Watech."

After visiting WaTech the group took a tour of the state Capitol building where they were greeted by Secretary of State Kim Wyman and stopped for pictures in the conference room of Governor Jay Inslee.