Holacracy — a magical ‘OS’ for organisations

Holacracy has been on my radar since 2008, and recently completing their become a Certified Holacracy Practitioner has turned me into an enthusiastic advocate for this new ‘operating system’ for organisations. This post is a bit of a download of my enthusiasm and early experience of having just facilitated our first ‘Governance’ meeting using Holacracy with some Pollinators staff.


 

The experience of that first meeting was fantastic: in a meeting schedule for 3 hours, we actually went for 4 because everyone was enjoying it so much and wanted to keep going and process all the tensions. What we were enjoying was processing real, present tensions in a systematic process to iteratively re-structure the roles and accountabilities in our organisation in a way that meant it was better able to express its purpose (regardless of who would come to energise those roles). AS human beings participating in the process, we all noticed that the meeting was characterised by no exhaustion (we were all attentive throughout), no emotional trauma, no loose ends, the time had flown by, and our energy was consistently ‘high’ throughout. Personally, I know that the intelligence, insights and decisions that emerged from that meeting were far beyond what any of us could have done as individuals or in a traditional meeting format.

 

So what IS Holacracy? Well, actually, the founders can better explain what Holacracy is and have done so on the website. You can also get a quick ‘hit’ by watching the TED talk or attending a free introductory webinar. What I can do is explain a little bit more about my experience of it so far….

 

The context for sharing that experience is that I’ve been part of consulting to, researching, running and working in organisations and teams that ranged from start-ups to governments to social enterprises and with people including highly-educated, highly skilled facilitators, self-identified servants of a sustainable future, passionate parents and manual labourers. In none of those contexts has their existed an entirely satisfactory or agreed way to act together in service of the organisation’s purpose. There were often ways for working and organising that were somewhat effective for meeting individual needs, or expressing individual’s ideologies, but none that really served as an effective developmental mechanism for those individuals, and (more importantly) for the organisation as an entity with an identity and purpose of it’s own.

 

From what I’ve experienced so far, Holcracy seems to enable both operational efficiency, human development, strategic and structural evolution. A useful metaphor for how it does this is as an “operating system” (OS) — a set of rules, procedures, definitions that serve to process the tensions generated by an organisational entity in action. Holacracy is based on a constitution that defines the process by which decisions are made about roles, resource allocation, strategies, next actions, property (actual and intellectual) and policy. This ‘operating system’ then becomes like a great game, then the game is for all the people in the organisation to become more and more skilful players. The beauty of the OS seems to be that the better the players become, so the more aligned and effective the organisation becomes and the greater its capacity to effectively and efficiently process tensions (e.g. internal issues, customer requests, changing economic or social context). Rather than directing their energy in conflict with each other, or within their silos, everyone’s autonomously-directed energy, attention and efforts are also aligned with the organistation’s purpose.

 

Holacracy’s set of clear definitions (e.g. governance, strategy, operational, roles), required roles (e.g. facilitator, lead links), universally-applicable ‘laws’ (e.g. new roles can only be created in governance and not tactical meetings, facilitators are elected by the team) and counter-cultural guidelines (e.g. hold rigidly to the defined meeting process, refuse to give “by when” deadlines for completing any of your assigned actions) all serve to create this amazing ‘tension processing machine’ (one of the metaphors that helped me was thinking of Holacracy’s processes as through they were a “Thermomix” — an all in one machine that can cope with any inputs and turn them into perfectly processed and useful outputs! In Holacracy processes all and any tensions raised by individuals acting as ‘sensors’ in their roles. This efficient processing enables continuous redefinition and evolution of the organisation’s roles and structures — not by an external consultant, not through a once-a-year strategy meeting and not by an authoritative CEO — but by the roles and teams themselves.

 

I think the diagram below summarises why ‘tension processing’ is such a critical part of effective organisation, but what can’t be drawn is how remarkable this is in ‘liberating’ people. Myself and other participants in the training and simulations consistently emphasised how Holacracy gives an unprecedented clarity about everyone’s scope, role, accountabilities, what is expected of them and what they can expect of others and eliminates implicit expectations. Holacracy seems to enable a very fundamental ‘trust’. It enables a trust in the process, the intelligence and capacity of every other role and person, a trust that we can change our decisions at any time if someone comes up with a better idea, and a trust that following the process will best enable the evolution and expression of the organisation’s purpose. Interestingly, there is no need to ‘trust’ other people, rather you trust that they will fulfil their agreed roles and accountabilities. This really radically reframes so much of our organisational focus on ‘culture’: Holacracy separates the organisational space from the personal, the tribal and ‘role’ space (where 95% of the work gets done).

Holacracy — how it works

It’s not that Holacracy completely dissolves the polarities or completely eliminates personal or organisational tensions, it’s that it processes these tensions in a way that enables wider, deeper, more interesting tensions to arise. The other ‘tensions’ it processes are the traditional ideological tensions or ‘polarities’ about how organisations can be run. Holacracy’s evolution as a ‘new game’, and enables the evolution of organisations and people who play that game as they get an experience of not ‘either or’, but the ‘both and’, like:

  • Becoming liberated and freed through disciplined application of the rules,
  • Embracing a consistent, structured process to enable agile, dynamic steering in an unpredictable context,
  • Express highly-evolved principles through dogmatic focus on the particulars,
  • Encouraging abrupt interruption of out-of-process interactions as a means to enable organisational ‘flow’,
  • Experiencing a completely non-judgemental attitude to content through making sharp and specific distinctions are about what’s allowed where and when,
  • Finding organisational clarity by leaving everything ambiguous except for the bare minimum roles, accountabilities and processes,
  • Feeling into your ‘edge’ and continuous, iterative forward focus via a relentless focus on what’s in everyone’s present awareness.

One of the metaphors that explains the difference between holacratic organisational life and what most of us are used to is that of riding a bicycle and our experience of “dynamic steering”. With ‘predict and control’ planning and action, we make decisions based on a raft of assumptions about the future and then try to ‘control’ the forces and ourselves until we next have time to make another prediction. This ‘predict and control’ applies to everything from our strategy, structure and right down to our personal time management where we commit to deadlines in advance (before even checking our competing priorities, or knowing what else the world will through at us that day). This is similar to trying to ride a mountain bike along twisting, unfamiliar singletrack (see video here) by predicting where you think the trail will go then pedaling with a blindfold. The alternative is to iteratively, continuously respond to the sensory data that’s flowing in from your eyes, ears, legs, arms and evolve the structure of your body, direction and where you focus your resources (muscles). Note: My blog post and associated video on ‘flow’ explains this metaphor concept a little more!

 

That shift towards dynamically steering, having parts of your organisational ‘body’ perform their roles with perfect clarity and coordinated autonomy, and devoting more and more attention to the present and forward is something I’m very much looking forward to enabling in my work, and I’ll continue to share more of what I learn through this blog. As a Certified Holacracy Practitioner I’m also able to assist with introductory sessions and supporting organisations who wish to adopt this approach.

6 thoughts on “Holacracy — a magical ‘OS’ for organisations

  1. Really interesting. I’m surprised I’ve not heard of Holocracy before, it seems like such a great combination of agile / GTD / open collaboration in a governance model suitable for a human, complex world.

    Thanks for sharing.

    I look forward to hearing more about how your experience progresses.

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    1. Hi John, well I think you may have described (or ‘located’) Holacracy better than I could. Many of those who I trained with were from agile / lean backgrounds and the trainer (Brian) referred to GTD a lot: that Dave Allen Company are now running on Holacracy, that GTD as a ‘trusted system’ is pretty much a necessity for running Holacracy, and that GTD and Holacracy are similar in that they ‘evolved’ through a sort of practitioner action-inquiry rather than being designed based on principles or an ideal scenario. What I did find interesting, and where I think Pollinators case may contribute something is in using it with networks or people or in collaborations where the organisational boundaries are more open. That’s going to be an interesting experiment, for sure. Thanks again for your comments, and look forward to more conversations in future.

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      1. I look forward to hearing more about your experience applying it to more open collaborations – they’re the ones I’m most interested in myself…

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  2. I work with HolacracyOne, and I resonate with your points that Holacracy does as much for the organization than it does for the people working in it. We tend to advertise the former more than the latter, but for working in a company running with Holacracy, I can attest of how motivating and empowering it is. In fact, it would be difficult to go back to “business as ususal” after that. Thanks for highlighting this side of Holacracy!

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    1. Hi Olivier, thanks for your comments. We’ve only just adopted the Holacracy constitution so glad to hear that our first taste is consistent with your experience. I’m not sure about the size of your organisation? We are really a start-up, and most of our members and clients are similarly small, early stage or work in collaborative partnerships. We also operate in various geographical locations where ‘lifestyle’ is a priority for people more than stellar success in their career. Given those contexts, it seems the ‘personal’ benefits are worth articulating as much as the organisational. Look forward to learning more from you and other Holacracy peers in coming years.

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  3. Hello Andrew,

    Hopeful this finds you well, and Happy Apithology Month ❤

    I wonder about the meaning of 'tension' in Holacracy and how the concept is understood in the practice of Apithology:

    "The discipline of apithology provides a means to undertake an informed investigation of the orientation of conceptions operating within social systems. The tension of the system is the resultant conjunction of its composite conceptions. The aggregate of all operant conceptions without division can then be seen as one unified and undivided frame representing the quality of the health of the whole for that moment"

    Did you get a chance to reflect on possible distinctions since taking the course and practicing? Might a circle be defined as "The Health of the Whole" as the tension informs proximity and normalcy by sensing into the conception of health and conception of whole?

    Your insight here would be appreciated and potentially helpful.

    Jean

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