A taste of Holacracy: Food for Thought

Out of curiosity and interest I have joined the +HolacracyOne taster workshop in Amsterdam to get a great taste of this new operating system for organisations.

Like many of you I am curious to see if this new system can fulfill its claim to be better than "today’s top-down predict-and-control paradigm"? Does it really: "radically changes how an organisation is structured, how decisions are made, and how power is distributed"?

March 23 was the day I would get a taste of Holacracy! And as Brian (Robertson) mentioned, he succeeded in letting me leave with even more questions than I came with in the first place. The food for thought from that day I would like to share with you here.

Purpose As Bottom Line
I fully agree that any organisation should be purpose driven. Holacracy puts it as an organisation through the people and for the purpose, instead of an organisation “of the people, by the people, and for the people”. Many of us know that a lot of organisational problems are caused by conflicting agendas and the fact that people put themselves before the organisation.And right we are!

Ultimately we organise ourselves to achieve something we cannot achieve alone. We work in this organisation to give meaning to our lives and to make an earning that enables us to live with prosperity. Perhaps this is the most fundamental tension of working. Do you work for a better life, or do you live to work. I don't think there is a single truth here.

This, however, should say nothing about the organisations we work in. An organisation should be more than its people. Especially when an organisation is founded to become more than the sum of the people. And of course to be there long after its initial founders started the organisation. This is possible when organisations develop a purpose of their own and decision-making should be purpose driven and not driven by personal agendas. Holacracy has the emphasis correct on this point.

Manager-less Organisations
Holacracy moreover claims that "Managers are no longer needed, the leadership function is now distributed". It is an appealing frame in a time where management is a beaten dog. Holacracy more or less sees management and leadership functions apart from it's holders and distributes them throughout the organisation. Management that leads, management that structures and management that controls. Holacracy distributes this management need throughout its roles and processes.

Command and control (or predict and control) is fitted into structured meetings with an emphasis on clarity. Clarity becomes the new control mechanism. If you cannot make your tension (the wanted change that bridges the gap) clear in how it supports your purpose within the organisations purpose, you are done. In these formalised there is no room for gut feeling or experimentation that has not yet reached the stage of rational reasoning.

It really feels like the other side of the spectrum where you command and control your own role and purpose. Opportunity, improvement and innovation need to transform into role tension before you can formally do something with it. Even when you see it elsewhere in the organisation, you can bring it up 'off the record' and can only hope that those who hold the roles build a tension for it and do something with it. There is no way it can be pushed forward throughout the organisation. And sometimes a push is needed. Autonomy sounds good but is definitely not for everybody.

Adaptability and Responsiveness
This brings me to another trait of Holacracy, being "a social technology for the agile organisation, one that bakes adaptability and responsiveness into the core of the organisation". Distributing powers throughout the organisation has strengths, but also weaknesses. The numbers are empowered, so for operational excellence it can be a blessing. However with distributed power the odds of amazing things happening might as well decrease.

I remembered the quote: "Crowds are the greatest common divisor who always remain below standard". By ruling out centralised power, the dependency on the individual ability to see opportunity as it shows increases. Blinkered workers, who only care about or only see their own role and accountability are enemy number one for change, innovation and improvement. Many theories and examples show us that change, innovation and improvement is preceded by a dip. A dip that bring uncertainty and status quo.

The case I want to make here is that clarity can obstruct real improvement. In cases of change, the future state is not yet clear. It is a (gut) feeling that embodies the potential promise. And not rarely the numbers (and figures) show you not to advance in a somewhat disruptive way. It also brings uncertainty that stops progress. I do not see yet how change and innovation agendas are driven. Does leadership evolves and exposes the same, better or less? Are organisations able to bring forward change and innovation? I tend to think that sometimes you need centralized power to get started.

Take for example the transformation towards a system like Holacracy. It needs the centralised power of the CEO to get started and become a success.

Highly Effective Meetings
The promise of highly effective meetings tells the story of work focus. Let it be no secret that I like the tactical meeting setup. It enables the organisation to deal with many or even all operational tensions (problems or challenges).

With the right support and education any organisation can and should work in a similar way. It keeps unproductive emotions out. The result according to its founders? Faster and more appropriate decisions by more engaged and autonomous workers.

Holacracy structures meetings for clarity, and features a 'getting things done' approach. Everything is focused around one persons tension that needs to be solved. Even the 'integration' is focused on that single tension. Any other ideas or thoughts are considered new tensions that can be placed on the agenda. Meetings are fast paced, and key in this process is the facilitator. He or she needs to know the rules of the game, and vigorously apply them without prejudice. It is seemingly the only way to work in this way and stay credible. Everything is about Keep It Simple Stupid (KISS) and being actionable. Basically every tension needs to be simplified and followed up by an action.

This structured approach is good for any operational setting. It helps an organisation to make meetings more effective en efficient. The build-up is good. It starts with sharing info (without interruption, people will get the floor), which gives time to listen and digest the information without diving into specific topics that trigger. And the discussions and decisions are centered on outcome rather than output. Not the product (output) is what matters, but the results (outcome) of it.

Points of Interest and Questioning
Just to be clear, I like the concept of Holacracy. I think it holds a lot of valuable lessons for management and organisation; even if you are not going to adopt it. Nevertheless a few points interest:

I worry about the governance part, because it is locked and tied within the circled hierarchy of Holacracy. Where the outer circles define the purpose, and thus accountability and roles within the inner circles. Power is distributed within the processes and the art of framing (your) purpose. Although anybody can learn and progress, the ones that can frame and articulate best have an advantage in this game. Power shifts from position to reason.

Purpose and Experimentation
There is a lot of emphasis on purpose. Everything that is done, or has to be done needs a clear and defined purpose. There is a strong call on reasoning the WHY in this system, whilst you cannot command and control the HOW. Which on itself might not be a bad development, however everything you want to do (through the structured process) has to be formatted into a tension and be clarified. In a way this blocks learning and experimentation in the organisation, whilst a lot of effects and outcomes are not clear, let alone be quantifiable in the early stages.

Times are changing
Giving people autonomy and clarity to solve their tensions is a good thing. Focusing on clarifying tensions and giving room to bring them to the table even better. However ruling out integration that is not directly linked to a tension can be hazardous. Though the Holacracy processes gives the room and opportunity to bring up your own tensions in order to make you own point, the issue that struck me was time.

Imagine large and complex issues that are not brought up due to a lack of clarity, or are handled in a scattered way. A lot of these issues might not be easy to frame in terms of purpose, outcome and tension. And also knowledge of complex issues take time to become clear, which could drift an organisation into a pitfall. The adage of being meaningful, purposeful, effective and responsive can be problematic for ideas and changes that have potential but are not yet crystal clear in terms of purpose, outcomes and next steps. I don't see it being advanced using the Holacracy techniques.

Rationale versus Emotion 
Last point that kept me thinking was the high demand for reason. Clarity seems to be a magic word within Holacracy. However clarity needs genius most of the time. Especially when everything has to be reasoned before it can be processed. I was wondering if this raises a bar for the type of workforce that can busy Holacracy? Do you need a minimum IQ? Do you need specific skills to fully use (or abuse) the given autonomy?

Knowing that people are foremost emotional, this shifts the power to the ones with the best skills to rationalise. Does it in the long run lead to exquisite reasoners ending up in the most strategic circles of the organisation? And drive through their own agenda? It might be just a crazy idea, but for what I can tell now it is possible.

Wrap Up
Like I said, I am happy that Holacracy joined the discussion on management and organisation. I think this field of science needs all the help it can get to keep up with the ever changing world and society. I did not write this to burn down the Holacracy house, but more to explore improvements so it can be further developed. Besides that, it helped me to organise my thoughts :-)

I think Holacracy has potential, and holds a lot of good practices for any type of organisation. For now I see a good use for it in project management, applying it in a controlled organisational environment. Projects are ideally environments where you want your people to have and take autonomy in fulfilling the projects purpose.

Organisational Triangle of Influence

The challenges of change, transformation and innovation are numerous. This is because these types of business renewal are more than just ideation. They also encompass validation and creation, where the inventive ideas need to become a practical reality.

It might be just one single talented person with an inventive thought that kickstarts an innovation journey, but to make it reality needs foremost collaboration. It needs collaboration between people through structures and processes. Giving a good example is just not enough. Don't be oblivious for the complex interconnectedness of the three major building blocks of organising.

People organise themselves since the beginning of time. To get grip on their organisations, structures and processes are put in place. And these structures and processes are as complex as people. Not in the last place because they are man-made products. However I keep being surprised by the notion that many organisations are still oblivious for the reciprocal nature of people, structures and processes.

The common knowledge dictates that working under changing circumstances cannot be avoided by any organisation. It is a given fact that the world goes round and things change. Not in the last place through our human ability to reason and question the status quo towards a new future state. And it doesn't matter if you organise top-down or bottom-up, or even self-organise your business renewal.

Organisation is collaboration when you want to create something that sustains. Todays (business) world is way too connected and interconnected to solely make change happen. It is therefor no longer seen as a result of a talented individual, but as a participative and interactive whole of people, structures and processes!

Knowing the reciprocal influences between people, structures and processes are to be known and applied. Moreover because there is no right approach, or golden rule. Whether it is for problem-solving or evaluating purposes, you should look at your situation from any and all of these angles. Especially when you find yourself stuck in the middle.

A few examples to showcase the reciprocal influence of people, structures and processes:  

The Power Hierarchy
On of the best examples to show the triangle of influence is your average power hierarchy. The structuring mechanism used by many to all organisations to create order in apparent chaos. A persons place in this type of structure defines power and responsibility, no questions asked. Whilst it is debatable which one was first; the power of the hierarchy, their reciprocity is undeniable. People created this structure, and therefore can and will affect it.

Structures, such as hierarchies give sense and clarity to the organisational context. Structures and processes make organisational activities more logical, and bring the ability to predict and create a product of service of value. It represents a status quo, a way or doing things that works and pays the bills. This notion often surfaces when organisations need to change. People (and thus also processes) have difficulty to look beyond a structure, they are bounded by it. Especially when a structure is institutionalised, it is easily seen as an undeniable truth that has no workable alternative.

Best-of-Breed Methods 
Another good example is the best practice and the best-of-breed method. These are pre-cooked-up methods, which consist of structures, processes and behaviours systematically organised to achieve a certain result. They become best practice after they are labelled successful at another business, and in order to copy that success these methods are used and unconditionally followed hoping it has the same effect.

This general approach is wrong. Whilst many good method out there is undeniable useful, they do need adjustment for each and every particular context. In most cases you have to deal with existing structures and processes, and at all times with your unique set of people who run the business. Putting any 'foreign' person, structure or process to work without any type of acclimatisation will create tension and difficulties down the line.

Lean Inertia
Although the intention of Lean programs are good, I cannot leave this systematic methodology unmentioned. These type of operational and process excellence techniques flourishes the Status Quo.
Their ultimate goal is to do the things you do more (cost) efficient and effective. It only questions if you do processes in the best way, not if the process is the best on itself to do.

This does not mean that it is not helpful, because it is. But is shows that it is not a silver bullet that makes your business better. Eliminating wastes in this case does not take into account the right to exist of a specific operation or process. It is not its intent or focus. Many organisations are squeezing (operational) excellence, but overlook that their business approach might not work anymore. Which ultimately can cause frustration and problems when the organisation knows better. When structures and processes need to operate excellent, and people see that they have to change the status quo it creates either inertia or anarchy.

Business Integration
As said, there is simply not much left in this world that you can truly do alone. People, structures and processes have to work together and integrate to create a successful synergy creates more value than just the sum of our parts. Mediocracy is just not cutting it anymore. Innovation is the standard.

I have been working within, and for many collaborative projects. Over and over finding out that walking the talk is not easy. Over and over finding out that when people, structure and processes are not aligned and tuned it creates problems of inertia or even (political) anarchy.  Truth is all these elements influence each other. So whenever something is not working, don't just assume it's the unwillingness of people. It might also be the conditioning working of structure and/or processes, or the 'managers' and 'leaders' who 'command and control' those structures and processes.

Lessons learned
My organisational lessons learned are that you cannot organise anything without a proper structure, process or people. Any of these forces will be involved or have influence. They will help you to get grip on potential chaos, and get things done. But they will also limit your organisational flexibility, and are always outdated. They always represent yesterdays reality, and therefor must always learn and be updated. Experiment, experience and learn. This is how people, structures and processes evolve and grow into maturity. But never loose sight of their reciprocal nature.

Sailing for Blue Oceans

Not so long ago the business world was presented the Blue Ocean Strategy as a metaphor for uncharted and foremost uncrowded areas of business in contrary of the highly competitive Red Oceans where most organisations reside.

This strategy is about business renewal based on value innovation. Charting innovative, unique and foremost differentiating value curves that set you apart from your competition by creating, raising, reducing or eliminating valued aspects of the products or services you offer. A journey sailing for Blue Oceans begins.
"When sailing the Blue Ocean, be ready to leave the safe haven behind!"
The Safe Haven
Embarking on a trip sailing for Blue Oceans means leaving safe havens behind. It is a trip into uncharted waters. There are no predetermined shipping routes or lanes. And chances are the weather gods are predominantly not in your favour. They will serve you with rough waters and dense fog, taking away any clear outlook you might have. Sailing for Blue Oceans is not easy; at all.

Insurance Buoys
Success is not for the faint hearted and no success comes ever easy or simple. Therefore it is your duty as the trip organiser to make work of the various insurance buoys. For any journey aiming at business renewal, transformation or innovation the aspects ambition, direction, motion and outlook are of importance. Lead, manage and organise these well and the odds for amazing and innovative things to happen will increase.
  1. For starters you need the ambition to embark on this journey towards an uncertain future. The needed perseverance and energy is fuelled by ambition. 
  2. Second you need a purposeful and clear direction, propagated and communicated continuously. The direction is not fixed, so when in doubt you can go back to purpose and redirect. 
  3. Third you need to harvest and channel the evoked energy into motion and purposeful actions. Innovation itself is not planned. It comes into being. 
  4. And last there is foremost need for outlook on what lies ahead. And alongside the guts to keep going or to cut loose. Progressive insights and sunk cost fallacies lie ahead. 
Insurance buoys need continuous attention. Unclear or ambiguous directions may undermine ambition. Unaligned ambition can very well lead to chaotic motions based on the various agendas out there. An uncertain outlook can be daunting, and might scare you or your organisation in making the wrong decisions. Sailing for Blue Oceans is a journey full of parallel and circular processes demanding attention and focus. It will challenge the status quo and shows opportunity for renewal.

Compass(-ionate) Navigators
Every journey you embark on needs navigators. Anyone can be a navigator, however it requires some profound skills such as perspective-taking, decision-making and be open minded. Don't take anything for granted and all suggestions are valuable. The navigator above all should have a clear view on how the destination could look like.

Navigating can be done by one person or more. Every part of the journey has its own context and challenges, appoint a navigator with the best papers and attitude for the job. History has shown many times that success in any job is not solely up to the person. Or do you really think Steve Jobs (Apple) or Jack Welch (GE) would be this successful in any given situation? I don't think so. Could they have saved for example companies like Enron or make IKEA as successful?

However good and compassionate navigators need more than just talent and leadership. Their expertise, as in experience and knowledge, are as important. Expertise can be a blessing or a burden. It can be blessed whilst protecting you from pitfalls. It can be a burden whilst it conditions also outlook and direction, especially in situations deemed unrealistic by experience or knowledge.

Being a navigator means you need to identify headings and possible routes. You need to deal with conflict; compassionately, and with a compass. Facing a hurricane requires fast decision-making, but also compassion for dealing with fears and risks. A navigator needs to understand that this journey can only succeed when approached as a collaborative power. All eyes, ears and gut-feelings are of importance on a journey to the yet unknown. Not only to determine the heading, but also to resolve imminent conflict.

Strong Foundations
To sail an ocean you need to create and preserve a strong foundation. For example a boat that floats and a capable crew that operates the boat. This boat and crew needs to be build up from mutually reinforcing and supporting parts, enabling it to sail and to be resilient for the oceanic challenges. It needs to offer stability, and a steady course. And it needs to offer the very much needed manoeuvring capabilities, to seize opportunity when it shows. Or to dodge in the face of dangers.

However a floating boat is not enough. Like in many areas the boat is a means to an end. The crew defines the journey, route and outcome. When sailing for a Blue Ocean turbulent waters are faced. Your boat can only endure and sustain with a crew characterised by perseverance, ingenuity and proper sailing skills. This crew needs a fruitful sail environment:
  1. Develop - a shared understanding of purpose and direction through integration of different organisational colours. Strive for synergy towards ambitious ideas and fruitful directions to advance in. This is also known as business alignment. Empathise world views and ambitions. 
  2. Detach - from the Status Quo; the business as usual. Experiment with actions of novelty and inherent uncertainty. Allow projects and plans to develop and grow. Withstand the paradox of time. Experiment unconditionally and without delay. Experience its outcomes. 
  3. Derive - stability by offering security to think, reflect and learn from each other. From this peace of mind it is easier to keep asking questions and to acknowledge errors, raise issues, and explain ideas. Strive for nonviolent or collaborative communications.
  4. Discuss - actions, processes and behaviours, and foremost their (intended) outcomes. Cultivate forms of adaptive learning, enhancing the way (organised) people deal with the repetitive process of renewal and advancing knowledge. 
Uncertain Future
One thing is certain, and that is the uncertainty of tomorrow. Not many of you will have a glass sphere that will speak or show the truth. The truth might be that any journey towards a limbo future requires an ambitious believe, a purposeful direction, determination to keep going, and a continuous outlook for safe chances and thorny threats. It is a wayward journey, and you need to be BHAG, HARD and SMART.

I wish you a GOOD SPEED!


Moving forward, doing things different, collaboration, change, breaking the status quo... it all starts with setting goals, envisioning objectives, framing purpose, and many more wordings that can describe the point or state you want to reach. Describing this future point or state can be a real hassle. In general it needs to be motivational, reachable, actionable, and so on. Therefore it is good that we have acronyms and mnemonics that can and will help you describing and framing your goals.

For this post, I have chosen three helpful techniques to get you started. I will cover them in a suggested order, although you are free to do it differently...

If we have to believe James and Jerry in their book "Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies"; breaking the status quo starts with a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. A BHAG! The type of goal that is meant to shift our current state of business. The type of goal that is nearly impossible to achieve without crossing the borders of your comfort zone and displaying commitment, confidence and when needed a bit of arrogance. These BHAGs are bigger, bolder and more powerful than your regular long-, mid- and short-term goals. The type of goal that is stimulating, provocative, (just) within reach, and something everyone just “gets” without any further explanation.

According to Mark you need a HARD GOAL! It is the secret of getting from where you are to where you want to be. HARD is an acronym for Heartfelt, Animated, Required and Difficult. Whereas Heartfelt addresses your motivation; "If you don’t really care about your goals, there’s not going to be much motivation for you to achieve them". The Animated part addresses your conceivability or imaginability of the goal; "HARD goals are so vivid and alive in your mind that if you don’t reach them, you’d feel like something’s missing in your life". The Required part addresses the 'burning platform'; "Procrastination is the killer when it comes to realising your dreams". And the Difficult part addresses the challenge; "You want to set goals which are so hard they will force you to tap into all the talents you possess so you’ll feel a sense of achievement"; but don't overdo it... we don't want you to give up :-]

Read the summary of HARD GOALS...

And then George, and Peter bring SMART and SMARTER goals to the stage. The mnemonic that lies closest to management. It stats that ideally each objective or goal should be: Specific – targeting a specific area for improvement; Measurable – quantifying or at least suggesting an indicator of progress; Assignable – specifying who will do it; Realistic – stating what results can realistically be achieved, given the available resources; and Time-related – specifying when the result(s) can be achieved. Later on Evaluate and Re-evaluate was added, to deal with the ravages of time. George framed this as a "S.M.A.R.T. way to write management's goals and objectives".

The nice thing about acronyms is that they tend to change over time, or at least appear in different shapes. This also goes for SMART(ER). The S stays in general the same. The M showcases Measurable, Motivational, and even Maximising. The A showcases Assignable, Attainable, Action-oriented and Achievable. The R showcases Realistic, Relevant and Results-oriented. The T showcases Time-related, Timely, Time-bound, Timeline, and Time Framed.

If you want to know more, read the wiki-page or google it...

Use these techniques wisely... they are not a goals on itself, they are a means to an end. As stated before, I would suggest starting from an abstract view (BHAG) to a very concrete one (SMART).

Which is the bigger number, five or one?

  • Robert: Which is the bigger number, five or one?
  • Cersei: Five.
  • Robert: [holds up his left fingers] Five...
  • Robert: [clutches his right fist] ... one. One army, a real army, united behind one leader with one purpose. Our purpose died with the Mad King.
  • Robert: Now we've got as many armies as there are men with gold in their purse, and everybody wants something different: your father wants to own the world. Ned Stark wants to run away and bury his head in the snow.
  • Cersei: What do you want?
  • Robert: We haven't had a real fight in nine years. Back-stabbing doesn't prepare you for a fight. And that's all the realm is now: back-stabbing and scheming and arse-licking and money-rubbing. Sometimes I don't know what holds it together.
  • Cersei: Our marriage.
Above dialogue from Game of Thrones is worth a blog post. It features a super glue. A substance that bonds organised environments. A substance called purpose.  A substance too often pushed backwards by financials, economics and politics, while purpose is the prime reason for many organisation to rise in the first place. Purpose reflects a reason for existence, a 'raison d'ĂȘtre'.

^ Purpose - 'the reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists'.

I have worked in many power-centric organisations to be full of recognition by this dialogue. It reminded me of the power a shared purpose holds towards leading and managing an effective and purposeful organisation. It also reminded me of the threat that comes with it, while a purpose has to be reachable, but can never be met. If a purpose is unrealistic or met, the bonding and binding power of it will vanish and disappear. Give it a thought; when a goal or purpose is met, what are you still 'fighting' for? Or when it is unrealistic?

When an organisations purpose is (perceived) met or 'wrong' it is easy to get caught up in politics, finance, governance, power hierarchies, and more a like. When there is no higher goal or purpose to serve, personal goals and agendas can and will take the upper hand. When organisations grow bigger, and their initial and prime purpose is achieved or outdated, and thus lost it will be easy to fill in that gap with personal purposes that cannot be aligned anymore with an overarching purpose.

Organisations are started and formed as a collaborative venture towards achieving more together in the first place. It is of utmost importance to keep this purpose in tact. When your initial purpose is achieved or faces the risk of being outdated, be sure to have a new one ready that aligns or builds on the previous one. I think that successful organisations are foremost bonded by a common purpose. It is their super glue. It holds the organisation together and makes them move in a meaningful direction and with determination. When this common purpose dissolves the organisation either falls apart or comes to a standstill. And this is obviously not the idea behind organising a collaborative power to bring forward something of value.

I can recommend anyone that works in a corporate environment or other power-centric environment to watch Game of Thrones with your corporate glasses on! It can be full of recognition...