Management & Organization

Redefine your leadership position with Holacracy

How an underrated measuring instrument, the registration of tension and autonomous cells inspired a new way of organizing companies.

Imagine that you have a flying license and that you are on your first actual long distance flight. You've only received 20 flying lessons, so you're still pretty new at this. Not long after takeoff the “high voltage” lamp starts glowing. Because this is all very new to you, you don't know what it means. You check every other instrument and everything seems okay. The altimeter looks fine, as do the other instruments. You choose to ignore the glowing light.

Bad idea!

It turns out that the “high voltage” instrument registers something entirely different than the other instruments and you are now in danger of crashing the plane.

Coworkers as sensors

It was this exact situation Brian Robertson, one of the ambassadors of Holacracy, found himself in. When he landed safely and had time to think, he realized that the same thing happens every day in companies all over the world: Minority sensors are being ignored.

If you've ever tried to have a change proposal or a solution that you find obvious, rejected by your boss, you understand Robertson’s comparison. For Robertson, every coworker in an organization can be compared to the “high voltage” light, where everybody registers individual changes. But according to Robertson, traditional organizations are organized in a way which mean that it is far from every observation that is being acted upon. Only those observations that the boss or the CEO also “feel” are actually implemented in the organization.

This means, companies are limited in how well they're able to perform their work. And wats limiting businesses is the way they are organized. Because companies are organized based on hierarchy, every decision must be approved before being acted upon. And of course, not every proposal is approved – because the boss isn't able to feel the same as the specific coworker. We are all different and experience different things.

Robertson calls these registrations or observations “tensions”. These are triggered by both frustration, challenges and the opportunities we all experience. An example of such a tension and how a company’s hierarchy slows the solution, is an anecdote shared by Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) in her book Lean In.  In the book she talks about how it wasn't until, she herself, became pregnant, that was aware of the need for implementing special parking lots for pregnant women.

So how do you offer every coworker the opportunity to react on the “tensions” they feel? At Facebook there were no (pregnant) women who'd previously solved the problem. But how can you design a system where every coworker has the opportunity to do something about this type of “tension”?

Get rid of the boss

First and foremost, Robertson’s solution is to step away from the traditional organizational culture where minority sensors are not being heard. In an organization based on hierarchy the boss functions as a barrier for whether an observation is being acted upon or not. So the answer is to find out how you can create a structure where bosses are unnecessary.

A place where this works is our bodies. Here, there is no CEO-cell that tells the other cells how to complete their assignments. On the contrary, every cell is an autonomous unit with the authority to act and solve the problems it encounters. Within clearly identified boundaries, that is. In the same way the holocratic system delegates authority to every coworker.

For this to actually work –everybody having the right to administrate their own area could easily lead to wild-west-conditions – the holocratic organization is based on a constitution (“Holocratic Constitution”), which precisely describes how for example coworkers are handed different “roles” in different “circles” and how decisions are made in a Holcracy.

Whether Holacracy will become the next big thing in management or not, is not yet decided. The company was founded in 2007 and according to HolacracyOne, which among others is owned by Brian Robertson, approximately 500 companies are currently using the method. So it is still too soon to conclude anything on the destiny of the method.

Of course, there have been critical concerns about Holacracy and the five most frequently voiced concerns are:

  • That the lack of (known) structure will cause problems.
  • That self-government will increase territorial disputes and lead to decreased involvement among coworkers.
  • That the lack of hierarchy means that no decisions are made.
  • That the rules are too complex.
  • That the customer is forgotten.

Time will tell whether the critical concerns are right or if Holacracy is actually capable of solving these problems.