Book Review: Holacracy

Brian J. Robertson has written a book about Holacracy: The Revolutionary Management System that Abolishes Hierarchy. Holacracy® is a governance system and a registered trademark owned by HolacracyOne. The word Holacracy is very easy to confuse with holocracy (with an o), which means universal democracy. Robertson’s aim with the system is to ”harness the tremendous sensing power of the human consciousness available to our organizations” (p. 7). This harnessing is done by ”a set of core rules” (p. 12). The Holacracy constitution acts as ”the core rule book for the organization” (p. 21). Robertson hopes that his readers will approach the book ”not as a set of ideas, principles, or philosophies, but as a guide to a new practice” (pp. 13—14).

Brian Robertson’s book is very readable and informative. I share Robertson’s view on the problems associated with ”predict and control” (p. 7) and his interest in finding ”better ways to work together” (p. 12), but I can also see problems with heavily rule based approaches. I think there’s a fundamental difference between following rules and honoring agreements. Rules are externally-focused, while agreements are internal because they are directly linked to will. Agreements, not rules, are the glue that ties commitment to results.

Brian Robertson focuses on practices in his book, while my interest primarily is on principles. This doesn’t mean that I think practices are unimportant. I share, however, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s view that ”The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” To paraphrase Emerson, the man who focus on rules and processes, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble. I also think that processes need to grow, or evolve, from their specific context. Each situation is unique in some way, small or large.

For Brian Robertson, it’s very important to ”prevent others from claiming power over you” (p. 21). This is done by establishing a ”core authority structure” and ”a system that empowers everyone” (p. 21). The power is in the ”process, which is defined in detail” (p. 21). For me, ”harnessing true self-organization and agility throughout an enterprise” (p. 20) is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Harnessing self-organization might actually kill it. I suspect people might decide to withdraw their engagement if they realize that they are harnessed for the benefit of the organization only.

Brian Robertson defines a ”circle”, not as a group of people, but as a ”group of roles” (p. 48). The ”basic circle structure” consists of nested circles (p. 47). Robertson calls the hierarchy of ”nested circles” a ”holarchy” (p. 46). Arthur Koestler defines a ”holon” as ”a whole that is a part of a larger whole” and a ”holarchy” as ”the connection between holons” (p. 38). I’d challenge that a hierarchy of nested circles really is a holarchy. A person certainly is a holon, but I doubt that a role, in itself, is a holon. What inherent ”wholeness” does a role have if people are needed to ”energize” the role and ”enact” its accountabilities (p. 43)? Having said that, I do think that a group of people can become and act as a holon under certain circumstances. Maybe Bohmian Dialogue, the U-process, and Open Space Technology are examples when such circumstances can occur?

The nested circles in the basic circle structure are ”linked via two special roles”, the Lead and Rep Links (p. 49). The idea behind this interlinking of circles comes from the Sociocratic Circle Organization Method (Sociocracy), which was invented by Gerard Endenburg in the 1970s. Brian Robertson tried to patent the idea (Pub. No. US2009/006113 A1, Fig. 4), but subsequently abandoned the patent application. Other ideas in the patent application similar to Sociocracy are the decision-making (Fig. 6), governance meeting (Fig. 8), and role election (Fig. 9) processes. A significant difference between Sociocracy and Holacracy is that all roles are elected in Sociocracy, while only the Rep Link, Facilitator, and Secretary are elected roles in Holacracy (p. 57). Holacracy is also more prescriptive. The responsibility of people in a Holacracy is to act as role fillers. This is a ”sacred duty” and ”an act of love and service, not for your own sake, but nonetheless of your own free will” (p. 85). Holacracy ”empowers you to use your own best judgment to energize your role and do your work” (p. 97). I cannot help but wonder why people can’t empower themselves? Why do you need the permission of a system to use your own best judgment in your work?

In addition to the ”basic responsibility as role fillers”, people also have specific duties in ”offering transparency”, ”processing requests”, and ”accepting certain rules of prioritization” (p. 92). Transparency and effectiveness are important in Sociocracy too. However, equivalence doesn’t seem to be as important in Holacracy as in Sociocracy. In Holacracy, ”the process is all that matters, and the process will take care of everything else” (p. 111). The rules in Holacracy ”create a sacred space that frees each of us to act as sensors for the organization, without drama getting in the way” (p. 110). ”As long as the process is honored, you really don’t care how anyone feels — at least not in your role as facilitator.” (p. 110) I ask myself, aren’t feelings important if people are going to be able to act as sensors? The answer Brian Robertson gives is that ”it’s about processing tensions for the sake of our roles, which ultimately serve the organization’s purpose” (p. 113). ”This keeps the organization from being overly influenced by individual feelings and opinions that are not relevant to the work …” (p. 116). He assures that ”No one’s voice is silenced, yet egos aren’t allowed to dominate.” (p. 117) Well, really? Yes, says Robertson. Holacracy seeks to ”process every tension and be truly integrative; it’s also a recipe for [not] letting ego, fear, or groupthink hinder the organization’s purpose” (p. 125). ”Playing politics loses its utility …” (p. 126). I think that the politics of identifying issues and building support that is strong enough to result in action will always be there. It’s great if the politics can be channeled through Holacracy. If not, it will go underground.

One of Brian Robertson’s ”favorite metaphors” used to illustrate the ”dynamic steering” and ”constant weaving” is riding a bicycle (p. 129). Interestingly, this is the same metaphor which Gerard Endenburg uses to illustrate the circle process in Sociocracy. (References: G. Endenburg, Sociocracy: The organization of decision-making, pp. 16—18; and G. Endenburg, Sociocracy: As Social Design, pp. 67—71). Robertson explains that ”Dynamic steering means constant adjustment in light of real feedback, which makes for a more organic and emergent path.” (p. 129) Dynamic steering done well ”enables the organization and those within it to stay present and act decisively on whatever arises day to day …” (p. 130). The focus is on ”quickly reaching a workable decision and then let reality inform the next step” (p. 131). As in Sociocracy, ”any decision can be revisited at any time” (p. 131). I think the dynamic steering is a major strength of both Holacracy and Sociocracy.

Holacracy defines the organization as ”an entity that exists beyond the people, with its own purpose to enact and with work to do beyond just serving the people doing that work” (p. 148). This is also why Holacracy isn’t a governance process ”of the people, by the people, for the people”, but ”of the organization, through the people, for the purpose” (p. 34). Holacracy differentiates ”between the human community and the organizational entity” (p. 149) and between the ”role and soul” (pp. 42—46). To summarize, ”Holacracy’s systems and processes are about continually helping the organization find its own unique identity and structure to do its work in the world, while protecting it from human agendas, egos, and politics.” (p. 199). Still, the organization needs human beings to energize and enact all its roles.

Holacracy is ”a big shift” (p. 145). Brian Robertson emphasizes that ”you can’t really practice Holacracy by adopting only part of the rules”, but ”you can take on all of the rules in only part of the company” (p. 147). Holacracy isn’t for everyone. Robertson has ”seen organizations where it just didn’t stick” (p. 167). The three most common scenarios he has identified are ”The Reluctant-to-Let-Go Leader”, ”The Uncooperative Middle”, and ”The Stopping-Short Syndrome” (p. 167). The last scenario is ”perhaps the most insidious” (p. 170) because ”slowly and almost imperceptibly, the change starts to fade” (p. 170). At best the organization ends up with ”a surface level improvement” only (p. 171). I don’t think this is a scenario unique to Holacracy. Regardless, Robertson claims that ”a majority” of the Holacracy implementations he has witnessed seems to result in ”lasting transformation” (p. 173).

Brian Robertson acknowledges at the end of the book that he is grateful to his mother for her great job in catalyzing the development of his ”strong and healthy ego” (p. 211). Robertson writes that he has a ”solid sense of self throughout” (p. 211). Unless he hadn’t had such a strong and healthy ego, he ”wouldn’t have needed a system capable of protecting others from it” (p. 212). To me, this sounds contradictory. I can understand if a person with a weak ego seeks protection in rules, but not why others would need protection from a person with a solid self and healthy ego. Maybe there are some deeply human needs behind Brian Robertson’s birthing of Holacracy? For one reason or another, Robertson perceives a need for a strong rule based system. It’s up to you to decide if you need such a system too! If so, it’s called Holacracy®.

Related book review:
Sociocracy by Gerard Endenburg

Related post:
Holacracy vs. Sociocracy

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