Holacracy

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Description

Holacracy = An organizational governance system developed by Brian Robertson through incremental testing in his software company Ternary Software, in the early 2000's. Holacracy was influenced by many methods such as agile software development, Getting Things Done, Sociocracy, and several others.

Some critics from sociocracy assert that Holacracy is simply a re-branding of Sociocracy, and point to the re-introduction of hierarchical elements within the process.


Characteristics

All the rules of Holacracy are clearly laid out in a document, the Holacracy Constitution. A brief overview of each of holacracy’s structural elements and key practices:


Core Structure


Circle Organization

The organization is built as a holarchy of semi-autonomous, self-organizing circles. Each circle is given a purpose by its higher-level circle, and has the authority and responsibility to execute, measure, and control its own processes to move towards that purpose.


Double-Linking

A lower circle is always linked to the circle above it via at least two roles that belong to and take part in the decision making of both the higher circle and the lower circle. One of these links has overall accountability for the lower-level circle’s results - "Lead Link" - and the other is a representative elected from within the lower-level circle - "Rep Link".


Core Practices


Individual Action

Acting from their roles, individuals may take any action needed to best express their role's purpose, within the constraints of existing 'scopes' and 'policies'. If such action goes against existing policies, it is considered an "individual action": the individual may take the action anyway if more harm would be done by not taking it than by taking it. After the fact, the individual must explain his action and take whatever next action is necessary to improve the situation, so that s/he will not need to take the same individual action again. The individual brings the need for the action to a circle meeting so the system can learn and adapt by evolving policies and structures in light of the new information.


Circle Meetings

There are two main types of meetings in Holacracy: Tactical (frequent) and Governance (less frequent) meetings.

Tactical meetings are all about bringing visibility to the current situation of the circle (review of checklists, metrics, projects) and triaging tactical issues: circle members determine new projects and next actions needed to move forward.

Governance meetings are designed to translate the learning from doing the work into organizational evolution. Circle members bring proposals to create, modify or remove roles and policies within the circle. Any circle member may bring proposals, and a structured process - "Integrative Decision Making" - ensures that 1) all proposals are equally processed, yet that 2) no one person can dominate the process, so that 3) accepted proposals don't harm the circle, and therefore the organization.


Dynamic Steering

Holacracy transcends predict-and-control steering with dynamic steering. All policies and decisions are made based on present understanding and refined as new information emerges. thus, improvements are incremental, never looking for the "best solution" but for a fast, workable solution to move forward.


Integrative Elections

People are elected to key roles through an integrative election process after open discussion.


Restorative Justice

When accountabilities are dropped or individual action leads to harm, balance is reestablished through a restorative justice system rather than a punitive one. First, all individuals involved "look in the mirror" to find their contribution to the situation, and take restorative action to bring the system back into balance. The extent of their restorative action is commensurate with their contribution, as measured by the relevant circle. Once restorative action is underway, the circles involved use the situation to learn and adapt, by defining or evolving accountabilities, limits, measurements, and policies to transcend the need for the injustice in the first place. (http://holacracy.org/how-it-works)

Principles

" the key tenets that Medium (holacracy using company) embraces:


  • No people managers. Maximum autonomy.
  • Organic expansion. When a job gets too big, hire another person.
  • Tension resolution. Identify issues people are facing, write them down, and resolve them systematically.
  • Make everything explicit – from vacation policies to decision makers in each area.
  • Distribute decision-making power and discourage consensus seeking.
  • Eliminate all the extraneous factors that worry people so they can focus on work.

(http://firstround.com/article/How-Medium-is-building-a-new-kind-of-company-with-no-managers)


Status

Holacracy goes open source

"The developer of Holacracy Brian Robertson used a global webinar to announce coming shift to a ‘free culture’ Creative Commons open source licence for the Holacracy Constitution – which a growing number of organizations use to guide their self-managed ‘operating system’." (http://www.enliveningedge.org/news/holacracy-makes-the-leap-to-open-source-and-zaps-the-painful-legalese/)

Discussion

Holacracy is actually very hierarchical

Steve Denning:

"Holacracy is non-hierarchical?

The first nonsense in this discussion is the notion that holacracy is non-hierachical. Holacracy, a management practice developed by the entrepreneur, Brian Robertson, in his firm Ternary Software and introduced to the world in a 2007 article, puts a lot of emphasis on consensual, democratic decision-making and getting everyone’s opinion. At the same time, holacracy is explicitly and strongly hierarchical. If you read the introductory article or the Holacracy Constitution 4.0 (2013), you will see that holacracy is hierarchy on steroids: the hierarchy is spelled out in more detail than in any conventional organization you have ever seen.

Basically, in holacracy, there is a hierarchy of circles, which are to be run according to detailed democratic procedures. At the same time, each circle operates within the hierarchy. Each higher circle tells its lower circle (or circles), what its purpose is and what is expected of it. It can do anything to the lower circle—change it, re-staff it, abolish it—if it doesn’t perform according to the higher circle’s expectations. The word “customer” or a reference to any feedback mechanism from the customer don’t appear even once in the Holacracy Constitution. The arrangements are purely inward-looking and vertical.

In holacracy, each circle must meet the purpose as defined by its higher circle. That purpose could be to delight customers or it could be to make as much money as possible by taking advantage of customers with “bad profits”: the Holacracy Constitution is silent on what the purpose is. Brian Robertson has expressed the personal hope that the chosen purpose will be noble. But the Holacracy Constitution doesn’t make that hope explicit. Holacracy is neutral on the choice of purpose: neither the customer nor feedback from the customer figure in the Constitution at all.

Holacracy is essentially a set of inward-looking hierarchical mechanisms that connect the circles. Each circle is required to be run democratically and openly, with exhaustively detailed procedures on how things like meetings are to be managed and how decisions are to be made. For those interested, there are even more detailed sets of procedures for other kinds of issues. But each circle, however democratic it is, works within a vertical hierarchy and is required to look upwards for instructions as to its purpose and guidance on how it is doing in response to that purpose. The emphasis on vertical hierarchy should be no surprise because the concept of holacracy is based on the explicitly hierarchical thinking of the authors, Arthur Koestler and Ken Wilber." (http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2014/01/15/making-sense-of-zappos-and-holacracy/)


Critique: a missing piece

"“In theory, Holacratic systems should scale much better than traditional organizations because circles can expand and divide infinitely based solely on the work that needs to get done,” Stirman says, acknowledging that this is indeed, just a theory, as Medium is only at 40 people right now.

In fact, the Medium team has already discovered something missing from the system: praise and feedback. “Managers are usually responsible for giving people feedback, directing them, telling them good jobs, and all of these things are super important to a healthy environment. You need someone to call you out or validate you when you’ve worked hard,” Stirman says.

Even so, the founding team at Medium decided to take a Holacratic approach to the problem. “We created a few roles responsible for giving people regular feedback,” he explained. “This is where we’re starting to skirt the lines of having people managers, because it certainly sounds managerial, but these roles aren’t responsible for people’s work. It’s more of a mentor relationship than a managerial relationship.”

These roles are called ‘Domain Leads’ and are filled by experienced members of various circles like design and engineering. In addition to mentoring, they’re also largely responsible for hiring and firing. They work closely with the ‘Lead Links’ who define and fill roles in their circles to assess performance. “Domain leads are responsible for the people, not the work,” Stirman says. “It’s something we’re trying out.”

To supplement this tactic on the positive end, the company also introduced a ‘High Five Machine’ – a dashboard where anyone can write in and praise a co-worker, streaming throughout the office. It’s an invention borne out of Holacracy, spun out of the unique needs this kind of system creates." (http://firstround.com/article/How-Medium-is-building-a-new-kind-of-company-with-no-managers)


Eliminating human emotion is not working

Citation 1, Executive coach and management consultant Julia Culen:


"I felt like being part of a code, operating [within] an algorithm that is optimized for machines, but not for humans. Instead of feeling more whole, self-organized and more powerful, I felt trapped. The circles I was being part of did not feel empowering at all but taking away my natural authenticity as well as my feeling of aliveness. It was fully unnatural and we were disciplined by rigorous protocols and procedures." (https://pazifika.com/2016/04/03/holacracy-not-safe-enough-to-try/)

Aimee Groth:

"Holacracy was developed by software engineer Brian Robertson, who has sold CEOs like Hsieh on a product that promises to push humans to run like a computer operating system. The biggest barrier to such hyper-efficiency is the complexity of human emotion. Holacracy doctrine, in turn, attempts to eliminate or compartmentalize the ways in which our humanity interferes with productivity.

As Zappos onboarded its employees to the system over the past four years, one of the biggest complaints, far and away, was around the rigid meeting format, which provides the guardrails for the system. Tactical meetings, as described by the Holacracy Constitution, tightly govern how and when employees can speak up. The meetings, which typically are held once a week, open with a check-in round and then dive into checklists and metrics. The Constitution is clear that there is “no discussion” during the check-in and closing rounds. In other words, there is no natural, back-and-forth conversation that begets camaraderie, respect, trust, and connection. No small talk.

“In the beginning, you feel that the human element is lost completely,” Jamie Naughton, Hsieh’s chief of staff, previously told Quartz. “I remember sitting in meetings wanting to scream at the founder of Holacracy, ‘You don’t get it, you don’t get it at all!’ He said, ‘You’ve got to trust the process.’ And I thought, ‘This sucks.’ You just have to wait your turn to speak your opinion.”

Years into the experiment, Zappos employees are still unsettled about Holacracy. (Robertson says that it takes five years for Holacracy to work.) Some are uncomfortable with the way Hsieh has attempted to “gamify” the company. Zappos has explored “badging” (giving employees badges based on their proven skill sets) and “people points,” which is currency that employees use to fill roles within the company. (For example, hypothetically, an employee could designate 50 of their 100 people points to an engineering role, 25 points to a PR role, and 25 points to a more peripheral role in the company, like philanthropy. People points determine how an employee allocates their time, and it also determines their salary—some skill sets are still more valuable than others within a Holacracy.) Employees who have too many unallocated people points are sent to “The Beach” where they either need to find new roles within the company or are let go. The overwhelming feeling of instability (worrying about people points, or whether they’ll be sent to The Beach) has sparked the fight-or-flight response that Brown spoke about in her keynote.

“When something difficult happens, emotion drives,” Brown told the crowd at the Smith Center. “And cognition, thought and behavior are not riding shotgun and telling emotion where to go. When something difficult happens, thought and behavior are tied up in the trunk and emotion is at the wheel.”

As it turns out, eliminating “the human element” doesn’t make it go away. Worse, it leads to an undercurrent of resentment. At Zappos, dissatisfaction with Holacracy played a role (though it wasn’t the only reason) in nearly a third of the company walking out the door in 2015. That same year, Zappos dropped off of Fortune’s “Best Companies to Work for list” for the first time in years." (http://qz.com/849980/zappos-is-struggling-with-holacracy-because-humans-arent-designed-to-operate-like-software/)

See also: Holacracy is fundamentally broken, http://www.forbes.com/sites/jurgenappelo/2016/07/14/holacracy-is-fundamentally-broken/#4b2bce98c56a

Holacracy has individualistic assumptions

By SIMON MONT:

"People I have spoken to in a wide range of positions in for-profit and nonprofit organizations have reported that holacracy is mechanistic and dehumanizing, and that the model does not in fact have the potential to create the kind of workplace and world they want to see. Organizations that care deeply about social justice repeat many of the complaints of profit-focused businesses reported in the article by Ethan Bernstein et al., “Beyond the Holacracy Hype”—for example, that time spent on self-management leaves less time for programmatic work; that it is challenging to learn how to operate within the system; and that too many roles and responsibilities make coordination and prioritizing tricky.3 But as the article points out, with justice-focused organizations there seems to be another layer, a tension that runs deeper than management, operations, and efficiency: a sense that these models aren’t addressing the deeper systemic issues having to do with oppressive power dynamics that are impacting people’s lives. This tension indicates that holacracy—and many of the models being promoted as “teal,” “dynamic governance,” or “sociocratic”—might be just as problematic as the hierarchies they are meant to replace.

...

Three of holacracy’s central assumptions are worth naming in order to enable us to see its limits and begin imagining new possibilities: (1) maximizing autonomy and coordinating the behavior of individuals is central to good governance; (2) explicit, linear, reproducible meeting processes and language are always preferable; and (3) the role/circle system holds space for everyone to have and use power.9 This paradigm produces some great tools, but it comes with some problems. We will walk through each mind-set and its limitations.

The first two assumptions are not surprising when we consider that the system’s creator is a white man with a background in computer programming and software development. His thinking exists very much within a scientific enlightenment framework that emphasizes autonomous individuals and focuses on easily visible aspects of reality. Robertson follows the historical arc of this thinking by using leading-edge science as the guiding metaphor for human organizations. In his 2015 publication Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World, Robertson refers to holacracy as a self-governing “operating system,” and his predecessors as having designed management systems to “keep the gears moving.”10 It is the updated version of a worldview that sees humans as component parts within a mechanistic, rule-based reality.

The third assumption flows from a simplistic conception of power. If the only source of power (the ability to influence others) arose from the formal delegation of power to individuals within the system, then roles and circles might be sufficient to achieve an ideal balance. Social human power, however, is incredibly complex. Creating a structure of roles and circles does not somehow create balance between people whose relationships carry the weight of personal and cultural histories. This conception of power is in line with the philosophies that underlie the dominant bureaucratic state and institutional structure, but it fails to accommodate the wisdom of generations of activism, storytelling, social theory, and psychology.

All this is not a condemnation of holacracy or Robertson. It is an observation that he is a particular person with a particular intellectual and experiential background that influences the design that he created. His work is certainly valuable; like all work, it has its limits. The tricky part is that his assumptions are so resonant with mainstream American ideology that we might not even recognize them as assumptions. By being explicit about some of the foundations of his thinking, we can begin to see how we might make different decisions. These assumptions are not unique to holacracy; they permeate many conversations and theories about self-management. We are focusing on holacracy as a case study because of how clear the assumptions are and how deeply their impacts are felt by many practitioners.


Assumption #1:

Maximizing autonomy and coordinating the behavior of individuals is central to good governance. This mind-set allows us to focus on our individual experience, to honor the leadership and creativity of all of us, and to increase efficiency by reducing needless communication. The shadow side of this paradigm is that it can lead to too much individualism.

Most people living in America have over time had individualism ingrained deeply into their minds and behaviors. We are taught that if each of us looks out for our own interests, the invisible hand of the marketplace will produce an equilibrium that meets everyone’s needs. This increases the resonance of holacracy’s philosophy of governance: Of course we should maximize people’s freedom to do what they think is best! Of course it would be ideal if I had to check in with people as little as possible.

The trouble is that people with different identities, backgrounds, and personalities have varied experiences with this type of individualism. Some have been taught that if they move quickly and assertively, they will get what they want, while others have been taught that they will be ostracized. Some people feel that they could contribute if they were just allowed to; others feel that they need support and collaboration.

All of this and more adds up to situations in which people feel and behave in roles differently. A person who has positive experiences exercising individual autonomy in our culture may immediately view and experience autonomous roles as empowering; they may feel “freed” because they don’t need to check in with other people. Folks who have been punished by society when attempting to assert autonomy will be aware that simply saying that everyone is empowered to act doesn’t remove the threat of many types of oppression, both visible and invisible, that could be leveraged against them. Without responding to the very real presence of trauma and power differentials, the sudden statement that “every individual is equal” can sow the seeds of conflict and reproduce the unstated power differentials that are in place in broader society.

On top of this, many people who want to build a liberated and cooperative space are on high alert to the risks of individualism and see it as a threat to realizing that vision. They may even come from cultures where they were taught to deeply value close communication, feedback, and collective decision making. Acting from an individualistic role will be antithetical to such people’s intuitive way of working—and sometimes even their ideas about what is good, healthy, moral, and sustainable. Holacracy is not complete individualism; there are teams, integrative decision making, and so forth. But it does have a bias toward empowering individual action. To get a sense of the implications of such a bias, imagine instead a bias against individual action. A system with a bias against individual action would seek to limit the autonomous operational space of roles held by individuals and instead would use consensus-based decision making as often as possible. This would produce a high degree of transparency, demand the establishment and maintenance of many interpersonal relationships, and create a sense of community identity. Of course, it would also take longer to make decisions.

There is not an overall right or wrong balance, per se—but there is a right balance for each particular group. Holacracy seeks to empower individuals for the sake of individual autonomy and operational efficiency, but those aren’t the only values in the universe. A wise organization will balance these with values like establishing equitable power relations and fostering a sense of community.


Assumption #2:

Explicit, linear, reproducible meeting processes and language are always preferable. The meeting processes of holacracy are clearly defined and regimented. They provide a structure that, in theory, focuses the group on the most relevant information and surfaces it in a manner to reach efficient decisions and action plans. It cuts through the noise of many meeting environments and tells people exactly how to show up. This is the way of the businessman and the computer programmer. It’s great—sometimes. Holacracy may be a great management operating system, but not everyone is excited about being a series of 1s and 0s. We can harness holacracy’s benefits and supplement its shortcomings when we remember that we don’t need to be completely attached to the holacracy processes or its belief that everything should be linear, identical, and reproducible throughout the whole organization.

This regimented way of interacting is also in direct contradiction to norms of many indigenous communities, faith-based communities, communities of color, queer communities, and communities of various national origins. For many of us, less structured space is necessary to feel welcome, safe, present, and whole. And significant wisdom is found when we practice patience, move more slowly, and unravel ideas in a nonlinear fashion. In fact, the imposition of urgency, linearity, and a structure that dictates how and when people can show up is a core component of the very hierarchical structures holacracy is supposed to replace and the colonial and patriarchal frameworks that many social justice organizers seek to reimagine. The refusal to practice patience, listen deeply, meet people on their own terms, honor stories, and understand complex interconnectivity lies close to the heart of many of the ills our society is perpetuating. Unfortunately, these mistakes are seen as successes when they enable quick decisions, straightforward thinking, and “rational” deliberation directed toward measurable goals and profits.

Many people have a preference for working in an explicit system that they can understand. When we organize ourselves to accommodate this preference, however, we narrow our awareness to only the things that we can make seem explicit and understandable. This results in reductive frameworks that do not accommodate the true complexity involved in our decisions and actions and that exclude information that might be valuable—simply because something does not fit into our predetermined rubrics. For example, if we decide that only quantifiable metrics are “reasonable,” then we exclude stories, feelings, and meaning from our decisions. This type of controlling of what is “true” or admissible to conversation is exclusion in the name of clear, linear rationality, and is central to the perpetuation of oppression. It leaves us making poorer decisions because we ignore important perspectives. This need to exist in a structure we can understand causes many to impose a reductive and exclusionary framework instead of being humbled by the fact that it is literally impossible to understand the complexity and interconnectedness that surrounds us.

That said, such circumstances can create a phenomenally generative creative tension—so long as we stay mindful. We can use highly structured processes in some spaces and completely organic and fluid processes in others. We can experiment with different levels and types of structures to be able to relate in ways that meet the needs of the moment. Different groups can find the processes that work for them in relation to their tasks. With a variety of processes occurring throughout the organization, individuals will sometimes feel completely at home and other times will feel on edge. Such mixtures of safety and tension can create learning and trust. Different consulting groups and frameworks suggest this idea to varying degrees. High degrees of structure can be useful. Some (myself included) take for granted that when we step into a formal design structure we will find space to relax, be present, and coordinate behavior smoothly. But a regimented cultural construct doesn’t immediately feel good for everyone—and feelings vis-à-vis cultural constructs matter, because they signal to people where they have space to belong, show up, have a voice, be liberated.

In fact, meeting structures like that of holacracy render some types of communication and exploration impossible. For example, holacracy allows little space for people to refine an idea through direct debate, explore interconnected terrain through free association, or have a natural conversation as one would do casually among friends.

A similar cultural disconnect is at play within the holacracy vocabulary. Words like lead link, integrative decision making, triage, and tactical meeting all carry certain cultural connotations that resonate differently with different people. These are words evidently written by someone who cut his or her teeth in the software startup universe. Reimagining the vocabulary your organization uses—designing a way of speaking that references different people’s identities and reflects their values—is a great way to intentionally create culture.


Assumption #3:

The role/circle system holds space for everyone to have and use power. Holacracy does create space for everyone to have and use power, but only a certain kind of power. If we understand power as the ability to do something in a particular way, or influence others to do something in a particular way, then it’s easy to see that there are many different types of power. There is the power we use when we vote (formal power), the power we use when we give a dog a treat (reward power), the power we use to solve an algebra equation (expert power), the power we use when we put a child in time-out (coercive power), the power we use to give insider information to some people but not others (informational power), and the power that we use, consciously or unconsciously, by being in gendered/racialized/able bodies in the United States (referent power).

These six types of power, defined by social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven, aren’t necessarily complete, and they aren’t the only way to understand interpersonal power.11 But they help us to see a key point: the holacracy system specifically focuses on distributing formal power and expects the distribution of formal power to create more equitable workplaces. It leaves the other sources of power unmentioned, and that is a big oversight, especially when we are trying to be intentional about creating a world where everyone is safe enough to live a vibrant, expressive, and meaningful life.

Giving ourselves specifically delineated roles does not change the fact that we have been conditioned by such factors as race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability. It does not change the fact that there are cultural assumptions ingrained into our conscious and subconscious mental processes that cause us, for example, to treat male-bodied and female-bodied people differently for doing the same activity. And it doesn’t change the fact that the power of such societal structures as, for instance, patriarchy, racism, or classism has caused us to develop patterns of behavior that limit ourselves and others.

To understand this, we can imagine a set of twins (female, for the sake of grammatical simplicity). As they grow up, one is consistently told that she deserves to pursue her dreams, take what she wants, and be who she wants to be. The other is consistently told that she is not entitled to autonomy and was created to serve, and she is punished when she expresses herself. These life experiences will shape the twins’ personal, emotional, and cognitive development. If the two are later put in a room together and told, “You are equals—act autonomously and make collaborative decisions,” the mere fact that the words were uttered would not somehow make them true. Each twin would be facing completely different internal psychological dynamics impacting her thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and the way she identifies and uses her own power.

This is an oversimplification, of course, but it serves to illustrate just one of the many power dynamics at play within an organization. The point is that different pasts can influence the present, and in ignoring that influence we fail to recognize aspects of reality that must be accounted for in a system designed with the intention of empowering all who use it.

People will experience power within holacracy differently. These differences will be mediated by an uncountable number of factors, ranging from various axes of identity to personal history to personality to idiosyncratic trauma. This creates a situation where some will feel liberated by holacracy, others will understand how it can be liberating in theory but will not themselves feel liberated, and still others just won’t buy into the system at all. People who are most often oppressed by unstated/invisible forms of power are less likely to feel liberated or to see the potential for liberation until the whole group speaks frankly about the various forms of power. If this is not done, some in the group will assume that everything is fine, while others will be silenced.

There is no way around the fact that equally distributing power is much more complicated than designing a particular governance system. It’s about developing new awareness, and relearning how to relate to ourselves and one another." (https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2018/01/09/autopsy-failed-holacracy-lessons-justice-equity-self-management/)

Case Studies

The use of Holacracy at Medium:

" there’s a focus on roles. Each circle has a ‘Lead Link’ who determines what roles the circle needs and how they get assigned. In fact, one person can hold multiple roles if their bandwidth and expertise allows. Stirman is both the People Operations lead and Word Master (which comes with final say on punctuation and capitalization, among other word-based dilemmas). This way, people can build versatile roles for themselves that speak to their whole skill sets - not just a single ability.

This role-centric organization also optimizes for number of ideas and strategies tried, while also keeping a tight grip on what gets shipped live. For example, there’s a single role titled 'Product Strategy', currently filled by Ev Williams himself, which decides which features go public. But, teams like RAD get to decide which ideas actually get prototyped and built.

Once there’s too much work for a particular role, it can evolve into a circle with multiple members to shoulder the load. “In a traditional company, the structure doesn’t change based on the work,” Stirman says. “You see a lot of companies trying to force the work they have into their existing structure, and that can get messy.”

This emphasis on organic growth has a side benefit of distributing authority. In Holacratic systems, individuals operate without managers because many of them have decision-making power in a particular area. And since everything is made as explicitly as possible, everyone in the organization knows who has authority over what. “It’s much better to have power distributed as widely as possible so more people can make more decisions to move forward,” Stirman explains. “This structure leads more toward moving fast, trying new things, and adjusting as needed. You don’t have to wait for everyone up a ladder to sign off. This can take weeks or months, when Holacracy says, ‘You know what, we’re going to hire the best people we know and trust them to make decisions for us.’ All day people make decisions, own parts of the company, and act on them. The momentum this creates far outweighs someone making a bad decision. You also have the momentum to change course quickly.”

Decision-making is further aided and hastened by airing ‘tensions’ in meetings. Stirman defines this use of tension broadly, calling it “any difference between what is and what could be.” In this sense, tensions can be negative (e.g. I don’t have time for that project, my chair isn’t ergonomic, etc.) or positive (e.g. I have a vision for a feature we should create). Tensions are resolved in tactical meetings where every attendee either shares a tension or passes. This way, everyone is encouraged to speak up if they have a problem or see an opportunity.

“The difference between Holacracy and traditional management is that when you have people at the bottom and people at the top, it’s always the people at the top trying to figure out their tensions, then they have the people at the bottom resolve them,” Stirman says. “No one takes into account the tensions, ideas, issues felt by the people at the bottom. They spend their days resolving tensions they don’t have and may not even understand.”

In tactical meetings, a trained facilitator builds a list of tensions that people throw out to the group, and the remaining time is used to resolve them as much as possible. This doesn’t mean solving major problems. It’s about identifying the next right step to a solution. “If I’m a guy who says a button should be green instead of red, in a typical meeting, that conversation could go on for hours, days, weeks without clear action,” Stirman says. “A small workable solution would be for me to schedule a meeting with our visual designer.”

For Stirman, even before he heard of Holacracy, tensions were always easy to identify, but not easy to solve. “Once you identify what a tension is, you can feel it in your shoulders, in your ears. You know you’re worried about something. Now, when I identify a tension, I jot it down. If I can’t resolve it by myself, I bring it to my circle’s next tactical meeting. With these meetings, you’re always making things a little bit better.”


How to think Holacratic

There’s a lot to like about Holacracy when you compare it to classic management frameworks, Stirman argues. He has firsthand experience. “When I think about my role at Twitter as a manager, I had tensions all the time. And my team didn’t even have that many problems,” he says. “Still, between all the teams he oversaw, my manager was constantly putting out fires. No one had the time or interest to resolve my tensions. Now, the way we use Holacracy, people are genuinely happier, they feel listened to, and connected with the organization.”

For companies looking to reap these benefits by injecting the spirit of Holacracy into their existing format, Stirman has a few key suggestions:

His focus on hearing people out about their personal lives and problems at Twitter is a prime example. It closely resembles a safe space to air tensions. In fact, he wishes he would have formalized his more personal, human approach so that people would have known they could share freely instead of carrying their issues around.

Holacracy encourages people to work out their tensions and issues one-on-one or outside of meetings if possible. Given the rampant explosion of meetings in corporate environments (so much so that there are meetings about having too many meetings), this is an increasingly important tip. Tension meetings are defined as opportunities to air issues that couldn’t be resolved elsewhere. People should only address the group with topics that actually need others to weigh in or help find a path forward.

Establishing mutual accountability can make a highly tiered workplace feel flatter, and more engaging. In addition to informing his reports about what was going on throughout the company, Stirman wishes he would have shared his own list of tasks and concerns with the people on his team. That way he would have been accountable to them too and made them feel less managed. “At Twitter, there was this common power dynamic where my reports felt accountable to me to get their work done and I felt accountable to the guy above me. It would have been good to be more forthcoming."

Most of the time, you know your manager’s responsible for firing you and how much you get paid. I wish I would have sat down with my reports and said, “You know what, here’s what being a manager at Twitter actually means, and here’s a list of the decisions I have the authority to make. I wish I would have broken that power dynamic, and been a better leader as a result."

Hand in hand with this, it’s a great idea to run some of your own problems by your reports to see if they can weigh in. “At Twitter, I was constantly burdened by my team’s problems, and I think most managers are,” Stirman says. “I wish I had empowered my team to solve their own problems, and mine. I wish I would’ve asked them more questions, been more creative about surfacing problems for them to solve to make our work better. I found myself scared to tell my reports ‘I don’t know’ whenever they asked me something, and in hindsight, I had this awesome team of smart, capable people who were energized by solving problems. Turns out individual contributors love to be asked for help. A lot of them want to take that buzzer beating shot. They want to be the last guy up at the plate. It gives them a chance to be a hero and to flex their muscles. And in the end, it builds more trust in me as a leader because I’m not filtering out questions I can’t answer.”


Hiring in Holacracy

Given the decision-making power of the average employee in Holacracy, you’d think the interview process would be fairly unique, or at least intense. But Stirman says it doesn’t have to be that much different than average – making it possible for more typical companies to hire in Holacratic fashion.

“When you interview someone, it’s pretty easy to tease out if they take the initiative to solve problems or take on projects – or if they’re simply better at being told what to do. Both are great kinds of people, but I’ve found most fall into one category or the other,” says Stirman. “I generally ask, ‘Tell me about a project you’re really excited about.’ The self-starters will talk about a problem they found and how they solved it. The people who aren’t will say, ‘My manager came to me and said can you build…?’ Right away you can tell. And for our kind of organization, having to be told what to do just isn’t a great fit.”

Don’t underestimate culture fit in hiring. This is something Stirman can’t emphasize enough, especially if you’re looking to adopt a more Holacratic mindset. “You want to make sure you hire only people you wouldn’t mind getting stuck in an airport with,” he says. “So many people fall into this trap of hiring highly skilled people who are bad culture fits. And I’d argue that’s the worst kind of hire – even worse than a poorly skilled person. If they’re as skilled as you think they are, they’ll gain power, influence and get more deeply enrooted in your technology, process and product." (http://firstround.com/article/How-Medium-is-building-a-new-kind-of-company-with-no-managers)


More Information


  • A comparison between holacracy and sociocracy:
  1. http://holacracy.org/resources/sociocracy-holacracy
  2. http://socialcompare.com/en/comparison/decision-making-tools