Holacracy, managerless offices and the future of work

With Holacracy you see less of big consensus-seeking meetings and more clarifying who has the authority to make which decisions, says Brian Robertson

Brian Robertson.
Brian Robertson.

About 15 years ago, Brian Robertson was feeling fed up and frustrated with the traditional management hierarchy and the way, to his mind, it had a tendency to stifle innovation and create inefficiencies. Robertson has channelled that dissatisfaction into the development of one of the best-known self-management systems, Holacracy.

Robertson and his system have earned the admiration of Tony Hsieh, CEO of e-commerce site Zappos, and Evan Williams, founder of the publishing website Medium. There’s been recognition from Thinkers50 too, with Robertson shortlisted for the 2015 Breakthrough Idea Award. But Holacracy has also met with scepticism. In this interview, Robertson clears up some of the misconceptions and gives an overview of Holacracy. Edited excerpts:

For those who aren’t familiar with Holacracy, what are its basic elements?

I use the metaphor of (Holacracy being) a new operating system for an organization, in this case a social operating system. We look to the management hierarchy to give us some really necessary functions. It gives us alignment, a way to break down the work and distribute it, a way to make sure we have accountability. Holacracy doesn’t throw those out, it gives you a different system to get them. Holacracy replaces the function of managers doing that with a series of processes that get embedded in every team.

Instead of a single manager figuring out who’s responsible for what, there’s a group process for every team that figures the same things out (by) trying to learn together what serves the purpose of the company, and it’s an ongoing process.

Because there are no managers in the conventional sense, when you fill a role within a company using Holacracy, you get a lot of autonomy. Ideally, a management hierarchy also gives you autonomy. The idea is a manager defines the boundaries and says, “This is your work and within these boundaries you go use your judgement and make decisions.” But in practice, most managers end up saying, “Go do something that makes sense to me and as long as it makes sense to me, I won’t jump in and micromanage you.”

With Holacracy, you know the bounds, you know your responsibilities and you know when you need to get somebody else involved, which means short of that, you can do anything that makes sense to you to get the job done. So you end up with a company where people have, even at the front lines, real leadership autonomy. But you do have a team process that can update it to find constraints or bounds on it and responsibilities that go with your authority, so that is all kind of at play in the system.

For a company that’s considering adopting Holacracy, what are the first steps?

The first step, even before you commit to doing it, is to get a taste of it. It’s a fundamental change to your operating system. So we do little two-day workshops for example with executive teams where we take them through Holacracy’s way to address their real issues.

Once you decide it is the right thing to at least try, think of it like learning a new sport. The worst thing you can do if you want to learn a new sport is to read the rulebook. There is a rulebook in Holacracy, it’s called the Constitution, and it’s there as a reference, but the best way to learn a game is by playing it, and ideally with a good coach. Expect the learning process to be a lot longer than most people think, but also often easier. Get a good coach. Don’t wait for the perfect time—it’s always a bad time to change your fundamental operating system.

What does it mean for an average employee?

There are several shifts. One is they have more autonomy and they know it—they know the boundaries of their autonomy, which means they also know their freedom. They know when they don’t have authority and they need to go integrate somebody else, and they know when they do, which means they don’t need to make sure their team is brought in, they don’t need to make sure a manager is happy, they know this is their purpose to serve.

So the first huge shift is stepping up and owning that authority—one of the challenges when you first adopt this (is) you give people authority and then they don’t change their behaviour. It’s uncomfortable to really step up and say, “I am responsible for this and I’m going to lead it.”

In a typical management hierarchy when you run into challenges or obstacles, you look to your boss and you say, “Hey, I’m stuck.” Instead with Holacracy you now do have the ability to solve whatever tension, as we [call it], whatever issues you are running into that are in the way of your work. It’s being more entrepreneurial.

It’s as much about unlearning all of the patterns and the ways and the habits that have worked well in management hierarchy, but ultimately limit us. With Holacracy you see a lot less of that big consensus-seeking meetings and a lot more clarifying who has the authority to make which decisions so that you don’t need a big meeting to decide things. So it’s like shifting habits and behaviours, and unlearning old ones and replacing them with new ones. That is a multi-year journey.

Can Holacracy affect productivity as employees are constantly having to figure out their roles?

It definitely does when it’s new. You can expect a dip in performance when you adopt it over the short term. Over the long term, it’s a very different story.

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