Dispelling Mythical Holacracy
Journalists and bloggers have sensationalized Holacracy in the past couple months with headlines like “How Zappos is getting rid of managers to retain a flat startup culture”. In the process, they’ve spread a lot of misinformation, and a lot of people now mistakenly believe that Holacracy is way to flatten a company into a non-hierarchical, leaderless, ambiguous collective.
A few quick examples…
"In November at the [Zappos] all hands meeting, [Tony Hsieh] announced that the 1,500-employee company would be restructuring into what is known as a ‘Holacracy’. That means a flat structure, with no job titles and no managers." — Christina Farr, Venture Beat
"The absence of structure is a structure in and of itself. When you allow a power vacuum to emerge someone will fill it, and it’s usually the people who have traditionally held power (rich white men). That’s how you end up with stories like this coming out of GitHub." — Catherine Bracy, Code for America
"Holacracy is about flatness. Think hierarchy and then think the opposite for holacracy." — William Tincup, fistful of talent
Dev Bootcamp adopted Holacracy last October. We’ve been using it as our organization’s operating system for 6 months now. I’d like to share some of what I’ve learned about Holacracy, starting with the aspects of Holacracy that clearly contradict the dominant narrative floating around about it.
Holacracy is inherently and explicitly hierarchical. There is a Board, whose leader (aka Lead Link) appoints the leader of the company. The company leader appoints all leaders of the next layer of leadership. Those leaders can appoint any leaders of sub-divisions (aka Circles) under them. We use software called Glassfrog to work with Holacracy. The default page in Glassfrog provides a nice visual representation of our hierarchy.
Holacracy has job titles (aka Role names). The most significant difference between typical job titles and Holacratic roles is that a job title typically corresponds to a 40 hour/week set of responsibilities, whereas Holacratic roles are typically much more fine-grained. For instance, one of my co-workers energizes 17 different roles, such as Event Staffer, Local Onboarding, and Office Manager. Since roles can be fluid, we did get rid of our former titles and replaced all of them with a simple and consistent “Partner” title. And yet, each of us tends to identify with one primary title. I used to call myself the Director of Chicago, and now I call myself the Lead Link of Chicago. Teachers still call themselves Teachers.
Holacracy’s power structure is explicit and clearly visible to the whole company. As I already showed you, Holacracy has a very explicit power structure. It’s a hierarchy, but Holacracy adds something special to it. For every divisinon head, aka Lead Link of a Circle, there’s a corresponding representative elected by the Circle. This person is the Rep Link, and this role’s purpose is to raise any unresolved tensions up the hierarchy to the parent Circle. This role provides a balancing effect against any domineering Lead Links. Rep Links operate in the parent Circle, just like Lead Links, with the same authority to propose, reject, and process governance.
Holacracy lets you refactor your organization. Software development has a term called refactoring. It means to improve the internal design of your code without changing its behavior. About 3 months into working with Holacracy, we started applying principles of Object-Oriented design to our organization, such as Don’t Repeat Yourself and Single Responsibility Principle. Unleashing our programmer brains on the structure of the company and the roles that we work in every day has resulted in far greater clarity of our roles, responsbilities, and authority (aka Domain).
Holacracy is autocratic. When a role has the authority (aka Domain) to make a decision, the person in the role doesn’t need to consult with anyone. They can simply, autocratically, make that decision. For instance, Lead Links have the domain to assign people to roles and our Chicago Office Manager role has sole authority over decisions about our office space. This is wonderfully freeing and efficient, because as the late, great Grace Hopper used to say, “It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.” Being autocratic requires a couple things: lots of trust, and tight feedback loops between the autocrat and the people affected by their decisions.
Holacracy feels biological. One of the core features of Holacracy is its tension processing protocols. These happen in periodic (usually weekly) Tactical meetings. I won’t go into the details of how these work, but when facilitated effectively, they can be amazingly effective at processing tensions. It’s helpful for me to think of tensions as food, and our Tactical meetings as our digestive system. The poop is the action items and projects that result from the Tactical meeting. And just to force the metaphor, those action items and projects act as fertilizer, growing us toward the company’s purpose. The work that creates this progress tends to create tension among the team, and the circle of life repeats!
I’ve described my unique experience with Holacracy. I’m not a Holacracy expert, but I’ve learned a lot about it as we’ve been running it at Dev Bootcamp every day over the past 6 months. I imagine Holacracy can look quite different at different companies, but it does have a single constitution, and so I’m confident that the attributes I’ve described above will be shared across all implementations of this innovative way to organize a company.