January 9, 2014

Holacracy Is Not The Answer To Your Employee Disengagement Issues

If you’re located in parts of North America where it’s been too cold to even blink your eyes lately, you may not have seen the news.

Holacracy is the new black.


In a nutshell, Holacracy is an organizational structure — initially devised by self-described “recovering CEO” Brian Robertson of HolacracyOne — that purports to do the following:

Holacracy is a distributed authority system – a set of “rules of the game” that bake empowerment into the core of the organization. Unlike conventional top-down or progressive bottom-up approaches, it integrates the benefits of both without relying on parental heroic leaders. Everyone becomes a leader of their roles and a follower of others’, processing tensions with real authority and real responsibility, through dynamic governance and transparent operations.

In a nutshell? Holacracy is a way to operate without the classic ‘command and control’ dogma found in many of today’s organizations.

It even has a constitution you are urged to follow.

Where Did Holacracy Come From?

Holacracy burst on the Twitter water cooler scene in early 2014 mostly as a result of Zappos. At the end of 2013, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh (never one to remain stagnant with his organization) held a town hall meeting to inform the fine folks who work there that their current organizational structure was being tossed in favour of holacracy by the end of 2014. Apparently they were running a pilot in 2013 with 150 or so employees. It worked so well Tony decided to (eventually) scrap his CEO title and all Zappos employees would do the same under holacracy . Even Twitter co-founder Evan Williams has implemented Holacracy® at his new venture Medium. (and Alexia Bowers does a fine job defining the misconceptions of Holacracy)

And the mainstream media and bloggers then went wild for holacracy. It became the new black.

holonLost in the shuffle (I believe) is the origin of the term holacracy. I didn’t interview Brian, but I’d bet one of my Canucks tickets holacracy got its start back in 1967 when author Arthur Koestler penned the book “The Ghost in the Machine” and where he introduced the term holarchy. An ‘archy’ (as a suffix) is a rule or a government and a holon is both a part and a whole. Put them together and you get a connection of holons equating to what Koestler called a holarchy. Holacracy — at least how I view it — is a connection of roles and tasks (a part and a whole) in an attempt to get whatever matters accomplished in as efficient a manner as possible without the rigidity of bosses, hierarchy and other organizational infractions.

Holacracy — and what I think is its originating parent, holarchy — however will not solve your organizational disengagement issues. Don’t be fooled. Getting rid of titles, managers/bosses and spraying empowerment across your employees doesn’t fix the core issue of today particularly in long-standing organizations with a history of disengagement. Some might say it’s pouring water on a tire fire.

The core issues in today’s organization don’t require the eradication of bosses per holacracy or the creation of overlapping, self-governing circles. (ie. the holons) What it requires is for employees — bosses or not — to simply become humane.

That’s it.

Employees of any stripe, rank and colour ought to behave better with one another.

But behaviour change for any level of employee is extremely difficult when both ‘manager and subordinate’ (wow, do I loathe those terms) have been so used to the classic ‘command and control’ way of operating.

No one ever said change was easy.

Just ask President Obama about the Affordable Healthcare Act in America.

Yes, holacracy as a principle is a very cool concept — who isn’t for a healthier organization team and structure — but I wouldn’t want you to think it’s the silver bullet for you and/or your organization. (Alexia says as much in her Holacracy misconceptions post)

In particular, I don’t think you should go near Holacracy if your organization is large and/or disengaged.

Debating Holacracy

One example I’ll surface is debating what the fine folks at HolacracyOne (the ‘owners’ of Holacracy®) market on their website:


This graphic suggests to me that holacracy is the aforementioned silver bullet built to completely eradicate bad leadership and arguably poor management.


If an organization implements holacracy will employees (and thus human beings) suddenly forget that they were once territorial, anti-collaborative, close-minded and less than humane in their behaviour with other employees/humans?

I really don’t think so.

Organizations suck (and disengagement is so prevalent) because both managers and employees have forgotten what it is to be human. We don’t know how to be humane in the organization.

And it really isn’t getting any better.

Let’s professionally debunk each of the four points from the graphic above:

  • Can meetings be less painful without holacracy? Yes of course, and they can be led by anyone on a team if the right behaviours have been instilled into the organization on the whole to be open and transparent.
  • Can fiefdoms and silos be broken down without holacracy? Yes of course, but it takes organizational behaviours like collaborating, learning, sharing, participating and reciprocity for it to occur.
  • Can work patterns be improved across an organization outside of a CEO dominated structure without holacracy? Yes of course, if the perfect balance of push and pull, give and take or perhaps ‘flat army’ are deployed as a type of ethos that everyone adheres to.
  • Can managers as decision-making bottlenecks become cured without holacracy? Yes of course, and one way is to implement the Collaborative Leader Action Model from the Flat Army framework. Connect, Consider, Communicate, Create, Confirm and Congratulate … six key actions (in that order) that will lead even the most disengaged workforce into the highly engaged ranks.

I know this first-hand based on the results of where I ply my trade during the day.

In Conclusion

To be clear, I’m not against the good work that has come of the holacracy movement or what Medium or Zappos are both undertaking. I am certainly not having a go at the fine folks at HolacracyOne either. Having this type of discussion in the open is refreshing and somewhat surreal compared to the decades of prose written about top-down, rigid hierarchical management structures as the ‘way to manage’.

If you’ve made it this far, I simply wanted to get alongside the holacracy movement and suggest it may not be for your own organization.

It’s my belief organizations are disengaged today because they do not possess the open and collaborative types of participative behaviours that are necessary in today’s society. Holacracy might work for some but it doesn’t address the root issue for a disengaged employee or organization, which is … how can you and your organization become more humane?

What behaviours need to be instilled across your organization at any and all levels such that work can become a ‘work of art.

Work can feel good even with bosses. It requires, however, a radical behaviour change for all.

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