Holacracy, a system for self-governing organisations, has been negatively reflected on in the news lately. Medium tried it, and decided to move along to something else. At Zappos, people are struggling with interpersonal communication, claiming that Holacracy forces them to become robots. Some even claim that Holacracy is not safe enough to try . That a rigid system like Holacracy is only appealing to tech people, and that it contributes to an empathy vacuum that is apparent to some in Silicon Valley. Based on first-hand experience however, we at Codaisseur are still eager to make the switch, confident that these troubles are based on common misconceptions.
From my 3 years of experience with (eventually) successfully implementing Holacracy together with my colleagues at my former job, these negative stories about a system as dynamic as Holacracy seem too dramatic to me, and mostly based on what seems to me, poor execution. Having seen that this system can work really well, I decided to go through the adoption process a second time, now in my own company, Codaisseur. I will try to explain how I think this will improve our organisation, and how I see we can deal with the pitfalls and the concerns raised by others.
At Codaisseur, we teach people into web developers using the latest and greatest web technologies. Our team is in charge of teaching, support, on-boarding students, evaluating students, graduation, mentoring, student administration, building and maintaining our online learning environment, etc. As our team and business keeps growing, we feel the increasing need to capture our roles and processes in a way that is more efficient.
Our team consists of smart, highly skilled, and intrinsically motivated people who want to make a change for our industry. That is why we hired them, and that is also why I think they will be up to the task of making this transition to Holacracy.
Although we work really hard, and there never seems to come an end to all the work that we want to put into everything we want to do, we have a great atmosphere here. We laugh a lot, we talk about random stuff over lunch, we have a loving community of graduates, and we organize and host a lot of events and meet ups.
We are in the people business. We are helping people into new programming careers, and companies to hire and train the right people. Teaching, mentoring, training, and consulting, helping people sort out their personal financial troubles, and all kinds of emotional issues that arise with students and teachers during our super intensive courses. Our company can only thrive around empathy. And that is exactly why we love the idea of the strict, process driven approach of Holacracy.
Having strict, well defined processes helps us deal with all the random people stuff. But in order to deal with personal issues fairly, accurately and in a timely manner, we need to be able to roll out new or updated processes all the time. Thus we can maintain an equal and fair system to process everything and accommodate students and companies in their needs. We need this to deliver top service without wearing ourselves out.
What is Holacracy?
Being tech people, we love the concepts and terminology of Holacracy. According to Holacracy One, the company behind it, it can be viewed as an Operating System for a self-managing organisation. The rules of the system are written down in the Constitution. A rule book that does not describe your organisation, but just the rules of the game that is Holacracy. And did you know these rules are Open Source, and that you can find and contribute to it on Github?
Here’s how Holacracy works :
Holacracy is a complete, packaged system for self-management in organizations. Holacracy replaces the traditional management hierarchy with a new peer-to-peer “operating system” that increases transparency, accountability, and organizational agility.
Through a transparent rule set [the constitution] and a tested meeting process, Holacracy allows businesses to distribute authority, empowering all employees to take a leadership role and make meaningful decisions.
[The] constitution compiles the rules of Holacracy. However it is not meant as learning material — you don’t learn a new game by reading the rules. — Holacracy Constitution
I strongly disagree with the above. I get why “H1” would write that, considering that their business is training companies to use Holacracy, but if you want to get familiar with Holacracy, the constitution is a very good starting point. Mostly because you will immediately get a taste of the intensity of it. This is not just a happy path to No More Managers or whatever it may be that you are looking for when you are stumbling on Holacracy for the first time. No, it is a very serious game, with very serious rules. And that makes sense. Consider this:
By adopting Holacracy you agree that, as a founder/CEO, you distance yourself from all your dictatorial rights in your own company, and instead you agree to give all of that away to a system, or rather — a process.
The above may seem scary to a lot of people, but it is actually very comparable to the way we rid ourselves of manual labour (e.g. micromanagement?) in favour of software processes. This makes sense if you know that Brian Robertson, the developer of Holacracy, was originally a software engineer.
To safely govern your organisation, Holacracy provides processes similar to software development processes, including the syntax, style guides, an agile approach, and tests to see whatever change was created does not break your organisation. People are in charge of testing each other on this, by following the rules and processes outlined in the constitution.
The key thing to remember with Holacracy is that it is a game. If you don’t know the rules, you will lose.
In a recent article titled “Zappos is struggling with Holacracy because humans aren’t designed to operate like software” we can read how companies like Zappos and Medium have been struggling implementing the system. It is easy to let Holacracy get in the way of work and/or to stop treating your co-workers as human beings.
During my history with Holacracy I learned that it is all about remembering that it is a game. A serious one, but still you should be able to have fun playing the game by it’s rules. And care for each other’s needs, helping each other carrying out the processes of Holacracy whenever someone gets stuck.
From what I have experienced, the people who dislike Holacracy the most, are the people who do not want to learn the rules. If you don’t know the rules, people who do know them will always seem to “win” and you will be left not getting what you want from your organisation. You will feel gamed.
The good thing about the Holacracy game though, is that it has clear rules, and that they are written down somewhere. This is far better than the alternative where people depend solely rely on unwritten rules of communication between colleagues (aka “culture”?). Maybe we should ask ourselves whether it is fair to base our work decisions (unconsciously) on whether we like a colleague or not — or on a set of clear rules that you and the rest of your team (consciously) agreed on?
Common Misconceptions About Holacracy
Over the years, I have created a list of common misconceptions about Holacracy, including my own. Here are 5 of them, in no particular order.
- Misconception 1: Holacracy creates a flat organisation (and everybody can do whatever they want). This is one I had 3 years ago, and it is fundamentally untrue. Holacracy organisations have a very strong hierarchy. Circles have super circles that define their purpose, strategies, etc.
- Misconception 2: Holacracy makes people more productive. Another one I also had as we were introduced to Holacracy at the time as a form of GTD for companies. It only gives you and your team the tools and process to create a fluent organisation that can adapt quickly to new situations. Nothing in Holacracy gives you more productivity, but your team can create efficient processes faster, and adapt to new situations quickly — if they want.
- Misconception 3: Holacracy creates transparency. It does not. People create transparency, or they might hide things from each other. But Holacracy does give you a meeting process to meet more often and quite possibly more efficient, so being transparent might cost less time and energy.
- Misconception 4: Holacracy gets rid of managers. This is the most common misconception I think, and I personally disagree with this. I have experienced people on our team who needed (demanded!) more guidance in their roles, not willing or able to take full accountability for the role that they owned (energised). Holacracy allowed us to create smaller roles for them, with less accountabilities, and transfer managerial tasks to other roles they had to report to. And with the same Holacracy processes, we could change this situation in a heartbeat to give people more accountability if they were ready.
- Misconception 5: Holacracy gets rid of people’s ego issues. While Holacracy provides you with a system that does not account for people’s ego’s, it can still be hard to adapt to changes in the organisation. Roles can easily be transferred to other people, changed, or deleted entirely if the situation or strategy demands it, leaving the former role owners possibly rid of some of the work they loved to do. That’s just the hard thing about change. Necessary change most of the time. And if not, the role can easily be recreated a week or so later.
There are many others too: Holacracy does not make people better at their work, it does not make them smarter, nor does it motivate them. It can help the ones who get it to keep learning and stay motivated though.
Holacracy in itself does not make your organisational structure fluent. You and your colleagues need to put in the work to make necessary changes, and experiment with different structures.
Getting Started with Holacracy
From my years at Springest using Holacracy, I know it will be a challenge to train the team into efficient Holacraisseurs, so to get us started, I set up the structure below and created roles for each circle in the Alignment super circle. This reflects the pre-Holacracy situation as close as I could manage within Holacracy’s hierarchical circle structure (our actual structure was more or less flat, like a pancake).
The Alignment Circle holds the purpose of our company, currently simply put The best coding school, as purposes should be ambitious, high-level goals, similar to a company’s mission perhaps.
Our Upstream Circle has the purpose Classes filled with talented and happy candidates and owns all the roles to support things like the selection process for new students, sign up flow, marketing to attract new students, and various administrative tasks.
Our Downstream Circle has the purpose Happy, working graduates and happy, paying hiring partners to reflect it’s roles in managing our ever growing community of graduates and hiring partners. The roles there deal with communications, job placement, and gathering feedback from our hiring partners to improve and maintain our 2-Year Program .
Our Operations Circle has the purpose Happy and productive Codaisseurs and up-to-date books which indicates that it deals with everything that is needed to run our company in terms of office and classroom space, and our salaries and finance.
Reflections On Our First Days of Holacracy
It is amazing to see how fast the team picks up the process. We were already processing tensions, using those to create new roles and accountabilities, already recording (and improving!) our current and state and processes.
The team became more aware of the processes and roles that we have (and don’t have yet!). We are using our tools more efficiently already, and are communicating more clearly about things we would like to improve and why.
Maybe this widespread awareness is the most important thing about Holacracy. Companies who have adopted it all report the same thing. Andy Doyle, Head of Operations at Medium, said in his article on why they are moving away from Holacracy:
Many of the principles we value most about Holacracy are already embedded in the organization through how we approach our work, collaborate, and instigate change. — Management and Organization at Medium
I think that is great, and I am sure Holacracy helped them get there, and I’m curious how things go there now.
For now, I’m looking forward to the process of implementing Holacracy with our Codaisseur team. And I hope to be able to update on the different stages of implementation here whenever there is something worth sharing. Even if we ever decide to move away from Holacracy. ;)
Have you implemented Holacracy at your company? Decided not to do it or moved away from it? Happy to hear your thoughts and comments!