Mit Lederne

Holacracy becoming a global movement

Holacracy becoming a global movement

Fifteen years ago, there was one, five years ago it was 50 and today 1000 firms around the globe have replaced their hierarchy and top-down decisions with so-called Holacracy®, hence making the new way of working one of the hottest trends among new management ideas right now. We´ve spoken to the founder of the growing global movement, who has turned debossing and employee empowerment into a personal crusade.

When Brian Robertson quit his job in 2001 and founded his own company, he didn´t just do so because he had spotted a new type of consumer demand in the market. He did it with the deliberate purpose of creating an organisational experiment.

After having worked for years in various companies that all, in one way or another, were slow and inefficient due to bureaucratic decision-making, top-down management and demotivated employees, he wanted to find a better way. A better way to fully engage employees in their work and make organisations more adaptable to an ever-changing world.

He called the experiment Holacracy®, and was for a long time only preoccupied with finetuning his own little business´ new way of working. But as curiosity and interest in his pioneering ideas grew from the outside world, so did his ambitions to spread the positive results from his innovative organisational model. And before Brian Robertson knew it, a whole new global movement based on his ground-breaking ideas had been ignited, turning him into an internationally acclaimed management guru.

- When I set up my own software company, I wanted to create a laboratory. I had for so long felt a growing frustration in the many different companies I had worked for because of rigid and inflexible decision-making. I had seen how my own and my colleagues´ efforts to make changes and improvements were always hindered because of bureaucratic structures. So I had this burning sense that there had to be a more optimal, better way of working together. And that´s what I set out to find, says Brian Robertson.

Hierarchies are obsolete
Brian Robertson first and foremost wanted to change two things, that in his opinion are making modern organisations dysfunctional today. The first thing is the slowness with which organisations adapt to changes in their environment, and the second, their inability to harness the full potential and talent of their employees.

- Some see my ideas behind Holacracy as an attack on hierarchies per se. But that´s never been my point. Hierarchies were invented 100 years ago and have served us incredibly well at a time when organisations faced far less complicated environments than they do today. But since then the complexity of business has skyrocketed and created a new need for continuous change that is not possible within traditional hierarchical management layers and control-systems. They are simply too slow and ill-suited for the ever-changing circumstances that organisations find themselves in, and therefore obsolete, he says.

The other severe disadvantage of traditional hierarchies, he believes, is their lack of ability to let employees use their full talent and potential.

- I´ve loved all the different companies I´ve worked for, but at the same time always sensed that I couldn´t use my own voice properly. Whenever I saw things that could be done better, I, like everyone else, had to wait for permission from the management levels above, which killed my motivation and incentive to change. And this is the problem in most organisations. When employees see things they can improve in their work or in organisations, they don´t have authority to act here and now and are held back and therefore never get to use their full capacities – much to the detriment of both their work engagement and the success of their organisations, Brian Robertson adds.

His main goal became to create a type of work place that could unleash that talent by giving employees greater autonomy and consequently make organisations quicker to change.

Compared to traditional organisations where the boundaries of peoples´ jobs are often unclear and blurred, all roles in Holacracy are clarified, and people have full authority to use their judgment whenever they see a need for change in their work.

Brian Robertson, founder of Holacracy®

Roles instead of titles give autonomy to employees
This became the basis from which Brian Robertson founded his software company, Ternary Software, on a completely new organisational model, that he called Holacracy. It consists of three main components. The first one being that work is not organised around people, their job descriptions or job titles, but is distributed into roles. Each role is a function of a project, and each person can have many roles in many different teams and projects.

When a person fills a role, she has authority to take any action that makes sense to get that job done. The purpose and the responsibility of the role is written down, so everyone knows exactly what´s expected from their and all other roles, and therefore also where the boundary of the authority of the roles go.

- Furthermore, work is not initiated nor delegated from a boss somewhere above you. If anyone senses a need for a new project or task, and no-one has anything against it, you can set up a new role. And as that project evolves, more roles are often added to the team. Compared to traditional organisations where the boundaries of peoples´ jobs are often unclear and blurred, and you therefore spend endless time asking for permission and sit in painful meetings to avoid stepping on someone´s toes, all roles in Holacracy are clarified, and people have full authority to use their judgment whenever they see a need for change in their work, Brian Robertson says.

e explains how this not only speeds up decision making, but also increases employee motivation, since everyone can act as soon as they see a need for change. Which in turn speed up changes in the organisation.

Governance can be changed all the time
But even with roles being clarified and roles explicitly written down, the way that people work together still often needs to be modified, as in traditional organisations, where it quite often creates conflict and tension. This led to the second important feature in Brian Robertson´s Holacracy: the so-called governance meetings that all teams hold regularly to adjust, modify and finetune roles, power of decisions and the way people work together.

- In traditional organisations we have all these job descriptions, that nobody ever looks at because they are totally irrelevant to our actual work. Managers tend to spend a huge amount of time micromanaging all the tension and conflicts and politics that arise from disagreements over who does what. This was another thing I wanted to change, and so I created a specific process where teams can change their own governance in a so-called governance meeting, where roles and policies can be adjusted according to those small needs for changes that always appear when people work together, says Brian Robertson.

He believes that the reason these tensions are much easier solved in a Holacracy is that, since work is distributed into roles and not to people, the discussion is depersonalized.

- And this is the beauty of the method. The focus on roles depersonalizes many of the issues that normally create friction in organisations, because people take it personally when someone points out that they are not delivering what was expected or agreed. But if someone does that at a governance meeting in a Holacracy, I cannot take it personally, since it´s not a question of my failing performance, but a question of my role not being clarified well enough. And since my role is something we have defined together, it is everybody´s responsibility to adjust it or make it clearer, Brian Robertson explains.

WRITTEN CONSTITUTION

One of Holacracy´s fundamental components is the so-called written constitution, which is exactly what it says: a written manual and rulebook with all the guidelines and rules of how a Holacracy works, the most important rules being stated above.

Find the whole constitution here: https://www.holacracy.org/constitution.

Adapting to Holacracy goes really deep, since it fundamentally changes the way power works in an organisation. This means that people have to change their habits of how they use and how they act around power, which is something most of us are unconscious of.

Brian Robertson, founder of Holacracy®

Experiment turned into global phenomenon
Where to begin with, Brian Robertson started his organisational experiment for his own sake, to make his new company a better place to work, his ground-breaking ideas nonetheless soon spread to other business leaders and organisations who, like him, were searching for new and better ways of working.

As the demand for advice and guidance on how to adapt to the Holacracy method grew, in 2007 Brian Robertson decided to sell off his software company and found a new one, HolacracyOne. A consultancy with the sole purpose of spearheading the development of the Holacracy method to companies all over the world. It proved to be a wise decision.

After ten years, 50 organisations around the world had adapted to the new method and since then, another 1000 companies worldwide have gone the same way, the retailer Zappos.com being the most well-known. The experiment not only turned Brian Robertson´s laboratory into a global phenomenon and made Holacracy one of the hottest management ideas of its time – it also turned the once IT- and software-nerd into a true management guru.

- When I first started this, I thought it was only going to be my ideas in my own company. Now more than 1000 firms all over the world have adopted the method, and we are currently preparing our third international conference, which will be held in a couple of months. So, of course I am proud and thrilled, Brian Robertson says.

CEO´s search for a new organisational paradigm
When trying to explain the reason for this enormous interest in Holacracy, Brian Robertson points to the same motivation that once made him take the first steps into defining a better place to work.

- Very often when executives and CEOs come to us for advice, it´s for the exact same reasons that made me start developing new ideas. They are tired of being bottlenecks of change in their own organisations, and they feel that they stand in the way of smooth transitions. They want to empower their employees so they can act more autonomously, but feel that the current hierarchal structures are standing in the way. And they are therefore looking for a whole new way of thinking, a new paradigm that can pave the way for another way of working together, he says. He also explains that whereas similar new management ideas are becoming increasingly popular these years, such as Agile and Scrum, Holacracy is the only one representing a holistic approach and suggesting a complete replacement of the hierarchy.

Adaption changes habit of power
Brian Robertson doesn´t try to hide the fact that precisely because adapting to Holacracy represents a complete turnaround, the adaption can be a challenge. But he adds that if the change wasn´t so hard, it wouldn´t have the potential to be so transformative:

- Adapting to Holacracy goes really deep, since it fundamentally changes the way power works in an organisation. This means that people have to change their habits of how they use and how they act around power, which is something most of us are unconscious of. So even though the change to Holacracy is wanted by everyone in an organisation, people are often surprised when they realise how challenging the shift can be, because it deals with unconscious habits and hence a firm´s culture.

The question is not that managers have to give up all power and authority, since they still lead in many ways, but more a matter of learning to manage their power differently.

Brian Robertson, founder of Holacracy®

Managers and employees learn to use power differently
According to Brian Robertson one of the big transitions is, not surprisingly, teaching managers how to let go of their authority and control, even though it is the managers themselves who have asked for the transition.

- Even if the initiative to change comes from the top-management level in a company, letting go of power and control in reality often proves to be hard to learn for them. As it was for me when I started, he says.

He explains that the question is not that managers have to give up all power and authority, since they still lead in many ways, but more a matter of learning to manage their power differently.

- In practice adapting to Holacracy means that you as a leader can no longer just say to an employee that this or that is what you expect of them and then assume that they will figure out for themselves how exactly to align with that, which is what most managers do today. You have to be much more conscious of your expectations in a Holacracy and instead of assuming people will align with it, you now need to address it at a governance meeting like everyone else. And that is a big change for many managers, he says.

Brian Robertson adds that the learning curve in the transition process can be just as steep for employees:

- Though all employees will say that they dream of more autonomy and empowerment in their job, it actually also feels scary to many, the first time they get it. Leading can be intimidating because you are putting yourself out there and all of a sudden you are being held accountable for your decisions. Being in charge can feel frightening. In a Holacracy no-one is helping you or blessing your decisions, like you´ve been used to with your boss. And because of this the transition can be an equally overwhelming step for employees.

Start with smaller steps
While the management guru has invented the Holacracy model as a holistic approach, and hence something organisations should adapt to 100 percent, he does admit that starting out by taking smaller steps can also be an option for those who are not fully prepared for a complete turnaround.

- If you want to have an idea of how Holacracy really works, there are companies all over the world that will gladly invite you in for tours and show you how they do Holacracy. That will give you a way to experience it, so you will have an easier time understanding the bigger picture, Brian Robertson says, concluding:

- And if you still feel you cannot commit to a full adaption at one time, start by adapting some of the specifics Holacracy-tools, like the governance meetings, or working with roles instead of titles, and in this way adjust to the principles gradually. And then I am sure that little by little, you will be convinced.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Robertson is the founder of Holacracy®. He is a high school dropout who taught himself how to code and worked himself up in several American software companies until he in 2001 founded his own high-tech startup, Ternary Software. In 2008 he established HolcracyOne, a consultancy firm helping organisations to adapt to the Holacracy method.

Brian Robertson is considered one of today´s most significant management thinkers, he has given several Ted Talks and is often quoted in management publications as Harvard Business Review and Financial Times.