A ‘Dummies Guide’ To Holacracy

Last year, whilst scribbling away at Lean Agile Scotland, the Agile Testing Days in Berlin and the Scrum Gathering in Prague, I was drawn (no pun intended) to the intriguing topic of holacracy.

'What on earth is holacracy?', echoed around my mind as I put pen to paper in the hope of creating a visually compelling narrative. Fortunately the talks by the likes of Will Evans and Brian Robertson offered some fantastic nuggets of gold, enabling me to capture some of the most salient points. But this was not enough for me!

Robertson, B, (SGPRG 2015) ‘Holacracy: A Radical New Approach to Management’

Determined to fully embrace this emerging theme of holacracy, I needed some more answers. And what better way to find these than by interviewing Radtac's Dragan Jojic, Head of Culture.

Stuart: Dragan, can you tell us what holacracy is?

Dragan: In a nutshell, holacracy is an emerging organisational model with no hierarchy, and with the authority and decision-making distributed to self-organising teams that are aligned around a common purpose.

S: In other words, stepping away from a traditional management hierarchy?

D: Yes, but it is not as simple as it sounds. There are essential elements that need to be addressed within an organisation, the first being dynamic roles.

S: So employing active people?

D: Not exactly, rather than just doing a job that is outlined by a static job description, everybody in holacracy fulfils several roles on one or more teams. Each of these roles and its authority constantly evolves. The important thing is that these roles are not defined by HR or any other central function but by the team that makes use of the role. As you can imagine, this setup leads to more effective teams and to happier team members, better able to utilise their individual skills and capabilities, and also able to learn and develop as part of the process.

S: Happier team members - I like the sound of that. What is the next essential element?

D:- Distributed authority.

S: Is this about ‘no bosses’?

D: The focus here is on the teams! The best informed and most timely decisions are made locally, in the close proximity of the work being done and the customer. This is why the authority in holacracy is fully distributed to the teams and people doing the work. The autonomous, self-organising teams decide how to best do the work in order to achieve their goal, without the need for managers to get involved.

Here’s an example. When I call my bank or my mobile phone provider, I want the customer services representative that picks up the call to be able to help me. That means he or she will have to make some decisions during our call. Every time they refer to the ‘company policy’ or defer the decision to their manager, I feel I should switch to a competitor whose customer-facing staff has more authority. Unfortunately, those are still few and far between.

S: OK, we’re getting to grips with this. What’s next?

D: The next bit is around rapid iteration.

I have experienced many big reorganisations, both at my clients’ organisations and the companies I have worked for. These reorgs have rarely led to meaningful and lasting benefits. Instead, they produced disruptions that typically lasted much longer than planned and masses of unhappy and disengaged employees.

Instead, the structure of a holacratic organisation evolves incrementally, as often as needed. This evolution takes place in teams at every level of the organisation.

S: How do the teams know when and what to change?

D: All changes in holacracy are prompted by what Brian Robertson calls a ‘tension’, which is essentially a challenge or opportunity. Any individual on any team can ‘sense’ a tension, suggest and then lead addressing it either by changing the way the work is done or by clarifying and improving existing roles, or both. The term is probably related to what Peter Senge calls “holding creative tension (managing the gap between our vision and reality)” in his book, The Fifth Discipline, from 1990.

This approach gives each team the right and the responsibility to continuously inspect and adapt to address identified problems or respond to opportunities.

S: Interesting. What about rules - are there any rules in a holacratic organisation?

D: This is where transparent rules come in. In most organisations, employees’ actions are guided by unwritten rules of the existing company culture (“this is how we’ve always done it around here”) and office politics. And these are invisible, they are very hard to recognise and change.

Holacracy replaces these by an explicit process and a detailed set of rules, which is called “the holacracy constitution”. Everyone in a holacratic organisation is bound by this set of rules. They make the accountability and the decision-making process transparent and are the glue that holds the organisation together (or should it be a lubricant that makes everything run more smoothly?).

S: One last thing: in your opinion, is there anything that is not to like about holacracy?

D: My biggest concern is that, as with most other new organisational thinking (Agile included), some people and organisations take it as a definite answer or a predefined destination. I see holacracy as a set of guiding principles and a journey to finding what works for you. I am following with interest Zappos’ implementation of holacracy and the lessons they have been learning. As always, only time will tell.

Stuart: Thank you, Dragan, that has been a fascinating discussion. I certainly feel I understand holacracy much better now. How about you dear readers? What would be the impact of introducing dynamic roles, distributed authority, rapid iteration and transparent rules into your team or your organisation? Get in touch and let us know using the comments box below.