Holacracy, a generic self-organization operating system

Go to the introduction and index to the Organization design and new ways of working collection

Contents

What is Holacracy?View
Main features of HolacracyView
InfluencesView
UsersView
Learn more about Holacracy
From the insideView
From the outsideView
Outside meets insideView
More Holacracy quotesView
Brian Robertson developed Holacracy while CEO of Ternary Software. Working in partnership with Tom Thomison, he then created an enterprise called HolacracyOne to make the system widely available.

What is Holacracy?

Holacracy is “a comprehensive practice for structuring, governing, and running an organization” (view source) and “a complete system for self-organization” (view source).

The source of the following text is the Wikipedia entry for Holacracy.

Holacracy is a system of organizational governance in which authority and decision-making are distributed throughout a holarchy of self-organising teams rather than being vested in a management hierarchy.

The term holacracy is derived from the term holarchy, coined by Arthur Koestler in his 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine. A holarchy is composed of holons (Greek: ὅλον, holon neuter form of ὅλος, holos “whole”) or units that are autonomous and self-reliant, but also dependent on the greater whole of which they are part. Thus a holarchy is a hierarchy of self-regulating holons that function both as autonomous wholes and as dependent parts.

The Holacracy system was incubated at Ternary Software, a US-based company noted for experimenting with more democratic forms of organizational governance. Ternary founder Brian Robertson distilled the best practices into an organizational system that became known as Holacracy in 2007.

The name Holacracy is a registered trademark of HolacracyOne LLC. As such, anyone wanting to sell products and services using the Holacracy name must first get HolacracyOne’s permission. The trademark is not to be confused with a patent, however, as it does not limit anyone from using the Holacracy model—it only limits the use of the brand name for commercial purposes.

Mark Vletter, founder of Netherlands-based enterprises Voys and Spindle, says:

Holacracy is not a complete system; it doesn’t say anything about a company’s culture, onboarding people and so on. All it does is organize the work. But it does this really well. You could call it a method for getting things done in an efficient way in a company. I really like the metaphor about an operating system. Holacracy is an operating system for us. Getting people involved and helping them to become entrepreneurial is the most crucial and difficult part, in the long run.

Source: “Holacracy has brought us accountability, entrepreneurship, and faster evolution.”, by Energized.org, a Licensed Holacracy® provider, on Medium.
Holacracy model

An animated 90-second introduction to Holacracy


Holacracy: A Radical New Approach to Management | Brian Robertson | TEDxGrandRapids

View more videos: HolacracyOne—YouTube channel

Main features of Holacracy

  • Dynamic roles replace static job descriptions.
  • Distributed authority replaces delegated authority.
  • Rapid iterations replace big re-orgs.
  • Transparent rules replace office politics.
  • Tensions drive everything. A tension is a person’s felt sense that there is a gap between current reality and a potential future, between what is and what could be.

Source: Holacracy—How it Works.

Read more about tensions

Did You Get What You Need to Satisfy Your Tension? by Rashid Gilanpour, Partner, HolacracyOne, on Medium

Tip: There is always more than one way to process a tension. By Energized.com, on Medium

Influences

When designing Holacracy, Brian Robertson took inspiration from many sources, including:

Source: History of Holacracy®, by Brian Robertson, on Medium.

Users

Enterprises that have adopted Holacracy include The David Allen Company (Getting Things Done®), software development company Spindle, and—most prominently—Amazon-owned Zappos.

View a list of organizations currently known to be using Holacracy (about 70 in total), and former users of the system

List compiled and maintained by Martin Röll, Margaux Chiquet and Diederick Jans.

HolacracyOne maintains a list of Holacracy Case-Studies. (TY Structure & Process.)

Learn more about Holacracy

From the inside (Brian Robertson, HolacracyOne, and people who have experienced Holacracy in their workplaces)

Holacracy: The Revolutionary Management System that Abolishes Hierarchy, a book by Brian J. Robertson.

Read the foreword by Dave Allen and view some sample pages

A before-and-after look into Holacracy at Voys, shared by Joris Beltman, by Energized.org, a Licensed Holacracy® provider, on Medium

About the continuous evolution of her team, lowered stress factors, and more Holacracy-related topics. Debbie from Springest shares her story. By Energized.org, a Licensed Holacracy® provider, on Medium

Beyond the Holacracy Hype, by Ethan Bernstein, John Bunch, Niko Canner, and Michael Lee, in Harvard Business Review

Ethan Bernstein is an assistant professor of leadership and organizational behavior at Harvard Business School. John Bunch is adviser to the CEO and holacracy implementation lead at Zappos. Niko Canner is the founder of Incandescent. Michael Lee is a doctoral candidate at Harvard Business School.

Four common challenges when adopting Holacracy*, by Energized.org, a licenced Holacracy® provider, on Medium | * Meetings. Embrace the ownership. Think for yourself. Sensing reality vs. predicting.

Holacracy—official website

Holacracy: The Revolutionary Management System that Abolishes Hierarchy, a book by Brian J. Robertson

Holacracy—How it Works

Holacracy Wiki

Holacracy glossary

Holacracy Constitution (version 4.1)

Holacracy, Managerless Offices and The Future of Work, Chris Russell interviews Brian Robertson, on CKGSB Knowledge

History of Holacracy®, by Brian Robertson, on Medium

“Holacracy has brought us accountability, entrepreneurship, and faster evolution.”, by Energized.org, a Licensed Holacracy® provider, on Medium

My experience with Holacracy: “What kind of impact can Holacracy have from an HR perspective?”—Energized.org, a licensed Holacracy® provider, in conversation with Annemieke Verhoeff, on Medium

My Takeaways From the Holacracy Practitioner Certification Training. By Gabriela Krupa, a partner at Energized.org, on Medium

Scrum on steroids: a Holacracy development process—Mark Vletter reveals how Spindle, “a shack full of nerds”, expedites software development projects

Tactical Meetings 101, by Jean Hsu, at Medium, on Medium

From the outside (analysis, comment and opinion)

Assessing the bold claims of Holacracy, by Corporate Rebels, who read Brian Robertson’s book, visited Voys (an enterprise that has adopted Holacracy), and took part in a Holacracy workshop hosted by Evolving Organization

At Zappos, Pushing Shoes and a Vision, by David Gelles, on The New York Times (July 2015)

The Audacity of Holacracy, by Theodore Kinni, in strategy+business

The Big Misconceptions Holding Holacracy Back, by Georges Romme, in Harvard Business Review

Complete Guide to Holacracy: Example of Zappos, by Martin, on Cleverism

The Fatal Gap Between Organizational Theory and Organizational Practice, by Bud Caddell, The Future of Work, on Medium

First, let’s get rid of all the bosses—a radical experiment at Zappos to end the office workplace as we know it, by Roger D. Hodge, in New Republic

Governance and Decision-making tools, a comparison of consensus, Holacracy, and Sociocracy, on the website of Social Compare

Here’s why you should care about Holacracy, by Adam Pisoni, in Fast Company

Holacracy and the Desire to Control, by Carmen Medina, co-founder, Rebels at Work

Holacracy supports the journey to Teal, by Dorothee Bornath and Gertraud Wegst, Die Wertschätzer (The Appreciators), on Enlivening Edge | Read about Teal organizations

Holacracy vs. Sociocracy, on Jan Höglund’s Blog

The holes in holacracy, in The Economist

How a radical shift sent Zappos reeling, by Jennifer Reingold, in Fortune (March 2016; good insights)

How To Decide Whether Holacracy Is Right For You, by Greg Satell and Alexis Gonzales-Black

Is Holacracy finally dead? By Felix Velarde, on Quartz

Jeff Fromm: Zappos Embraces Holacracy as Millennials Shape the Future of Work, by Jeff Fromm, founder and president, FutureCast

Making Sense Of Zappos And Holacracy, by Steve Denning, in Forbes

Medium’s Experiment with Holacracy Failed. Long Live the Experiment! by Tim Rayner, on Medium

The next big thing you missed: companies that work better without bosses, by Marcus Wohlsen, in Wired

Not Everyone Wants to Be the Boss, by Justin Fox, on Bloomberg View

People and Holacracy: Four Necessities for Success, by Sam Spurlin, The Ready, on Medium

The Secret Face of Holacracy®, by Sabrina Bouraoui, former HolacracyOne staffer, on Medium

Tony Hsieh’s Workplace Dream: Is Holacracy A Big Failure? By Laura Reston, on Forbes

Unlocking the Benefits of Self-Management Without Going All In on Holacracy, by Mike Arauz, co-founder of August, on First Round Review

“There’s one big problem with Holacracy—the vast majority of people either have an ill conceived view of what it is or don’t understand it at all.” This comes from a short Medium post by Bill Lewis from SpaceHQ.

Digital philosopher Tim Rayner responds in another short Medium post.

We Only Changed Everything—ARCA Adopts Holacracy, by Kevin Joyce, ARCA | Part 2: What Does Holacracy Change? by Kevin Joyce, ARCA

What Is Happening At Zappos? by Dan Pontefract, on Forbes

What Happened When This Major Company [Zappos] Got Rid Of All Its Bosses, by Shane Ferro, on The Huffington Post

What is Holacracy? by Michael DeAngelo, on Office of the Chief Information Officer, Washington State

Why Questioning Tried and True Management Systems Is Critical to Redesigning Our Work Environments, by Matt Frost and Emily Selvin, Deloitte Center for the Edge

You Don’t Need to Adopt Holacracy to Get Some of Its Benefits, by Greg Satell, in Harvard Business Review

The Zappos Exodus Wasn’t About Holacracy, Says Tony Hsieh, by Gregory Ferenstein, on Enlivening Edge

Zappos is struggling with Holacracy because humans aren’t designed to operate like software, by Aimee Groth, on Quartz

Outside meets inside

The following articles provide useful insights into the adoption of Holacacy by an enterprise.

1. Top-Down Solutions Like Holacracy Won’t Fix Bureaucracy, by Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini, in Harvard Business Review

2. Why you don’t understand Holacracy, by Ruben Timmerman, Chief UX Officer, Springest (a Holacracy adopter)

3. Hi Ruben, thanks for your post. by Michele Zanini, on Medium

4. Thanks for taking the time Michele! by Ruben Timmerman, on Medium

Actually, I think the focus on bottom-up vs top-down implementation is a distraction. They are just definitions to be interpreted, and I think the way many companies are implementing new SooS’s is actually much more bottom-up than you think.

Ruben Timmerman (4) in response to Michele Zanini (3) on Medium.

More Holacracy quotes

I have a theory that the most artful of all Holacracy implementations could be done without the word Holacracy ever being mentioned at all. The whole thing could just feel like very welcome help towards making things happen. This might also be useful since even the word ‘Holacracy’ has become somewhat tainted (a bit like its friend, ‘Teal*.’)

* See below.
Source: Good Holocracy, Bad Holacracy, by Tom Nixon, on Medium.

It’s not so much about ‘holacracy’ as it is about ‘self-organization.’

Source: Safe enough to try: An interview with Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, in McKinsey Quarterly.

Conor O’Higgins: If I’m planning events, who puts me in the role? Do I just volunteer?

Brian Robertson: Nope, there’s another role whose job it is to interview people, figure out who the right fit for the right roles. And they can put people in roles, and they can swap them out. Now, they can’t tell the person what to do in a role; like I’m like a typical manager that can direct the action and micromanage. It’s a role that assigns people to roles, and that’s the extent of what that person does. They’re not telling them how to do the role; they’re looking for the right fit. And then there’s a governance process, that you can add extra expectations on that person or constraints, or whatever you need to make it work. The goal isn’t to have all the answers; it’s just to let you evolve and adapt your structure.

Source: Interview with Brian Robertson of Holacracy, on CryptoInsider.

As I reflect on it two months into our journey, there are a few things that I’m beginning to appreciate as the genius of Holacracy:

  • Power of anyone, any time to tweak the organization to move us towards our goals and purpose.
  • Distributing traditional leadership roles.
  • The power of transparency.
  • The separation between roles and people.
Source: Personal reflection on Future Considerations’ journey with Holacracy, by Mark Young.

“I couldn’t go back to the old way of working.” – Tyler Williams, Zappos employee.

Source: Banishing The Bosses Brings Out Zappos’ Hidden Entrepreneurs, by Alison Coleman, on Forbes.

In Holacracy, there are no parents and no children. The system operates on the premise that everyone in it is an adult that can make sensible decisions without having to ask for permission. There might be a small risk involved, but as we all know, all the managers in the world are also not always able to prevent terrible things from happening. Yes, I’m also looking at you Volkswagen.

Source: Holacracy is for grown-ups, by Devhouse Spindle, on Medium.

A holacratic organization knows its purpose. It is at the heart of everything that happens. It informs decisions on all levels.

The questions “What has this organization to offer to the world?” and “What does the world want from the organization?” spark the evolution of purpose.

Source: Holacracy supports the journey to Teal, by Dorothee Bornath and Gertraud Wegst, Die Wertschätzer (The Appreciators), on Enlivening Edge.

After its invention, many forms and styles of Linux-based operating systems were created, or forked as it’s called in open source lingo. The future will have to prove whether Holacracy is the Linux to the Unix of systems like Scrum, GTD and Sociocracy, or merely one of many “distributions” for self-organization like Red Hat was the most famous one for Linux. Maybe Holacracy turns out to be the Unix of self-organization. Or the Mac OSX that’s actually based on Unix and is universally loved inspite of it’s “ugly and un-usable” grandfather which was intended for mainframes and other non-personal computers.

Starting with Linus Thorvalds’ Linux, many “forks” of new distributions have been created. We are doing this for self-organization too in the next decades.

Source: Why you don’t understand Holacracy, by Ruben Timmerman, Chief UX Officer, Springest.

Hands down, Holacracy is the most audacious business book I have ever read, and I’m very impressed by the degree of thought and effort that have gone into developing this system. It’s on a par with the job the founding fathers did on the Constitution of the United States.

Source: The Audacity of Holacracy, by Theodore Kinni, in strategy+business.

Whether you decide to pursue Holacracy or not, you should take some time thinking about the issues that it brings to the fore and ask: If not Holacracy, then what?

Source: How To Decide Whether Holacracy Is Right For You, by Greg Satell and Alexis Gonzales-Black.

Organizations that are celebrated for their lack of hierarchy may downplay and reduce status differences, but they always have some people with greater formal and informal power than others—and associated pecking orders. And eliminating titles such as ‘manager’ or ‘supervisor’ doesn’t make the hierarchy disappear. For example, there has been a lot of talk lately about Zappos’ ongoing reorganization into something they call a ‘holacracy.’ Some headlines suggest that the company is getting rid of bosses—that isn’t quite right. While more power is being pushed down the hierarchy, it persists under the new structure. More responsibility is being placed as people are moved into ‘circles’ (which sound much like self-managing teams). Yet even though they have stopped using the word ‘manager’ for many roles, there are still be people who perform what sound like middle management roles to me: They are responsible for staffing teams and dealing with employee performance issues. And, while Zappos is getting rid of a lot of titles, note that Tony Hsieh is still called the CEO.

Source: Hierarchy is Good. Hierarchy is Essential. And Less Isn’t Always Better, by Bob Sutton, Stanford Professor and co-author, with Huggy Rao, of Scaling Up Excellence.

Undercurrent² [the company where the founders of August worked before its closure] adopted Holacracy in the Summer of 2013, and it made a huge positive impact on our business. Yet, as August looks ahead at the company that we want to build, we have decided to opt-out of Holacracy’s rigid system, and operate with our own lighter weight approach to self-management. While many of Holacracy’s underlying principles are incredibly valuable, it is possible to reap the benefits without formally adopting Holacracy.

Source: Unlocking the Benefits of Self-Management Without Going All In on Holacracy, by Mike Arauz, co-founder of August, in First Round Review.

The latest management craze is flat, leaderless organizations. Much has been made about Zappos’ recent efforts with holacracy, but as Tim Kastelle recently explained, the jury is still out whether the effort—and those like it—will be ultimately successful. My own feeling is that flat structures will work for some cultures, but not others.

The important thing is that an organization does not have to be flat to be networked. In his new book, Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal explains how he drastically reinvented how his forces operated, but didn’t changed the formal structure. The changes mainly had to do with informal structure, communication and forging a shared purpose.

Source: 4 Things You Should Know About Networked Organizations, by Greg Satell

The jury is still out on holacracy, and I expect it will evolve over time just as traditional organizations have done. Every enterprise will have to choose its own path. What’s clear is that the status quo is untenable; we all need to ask ourselves some hard questions and continually come up with better answers.

Source: You Don’t Need to Adopt Holacracy to Get Some of Its Benefits, by Greg Satell, in Harvard Business Review

View the index to the organization design collection

Leave a Reply