Holacracy: A Great Operating Model for Your Business – If Your People are Vulcans.

There is a puzzling persistence of micromanagement in corporate America. As an employee engagement professional, I’ve naturally thought a lot about what to do about what is arguably one of the biggest dis-engagement practices in the workplace today (you can read more on the subject here), and one of the “answers” that keeps coming up is holacracy*. In fact, holacracy is coming up so much recently – from industry buzz to New York Times articles – it seems like a good time to take a good hard look at it. How does it rid a company of micromanagement? And what would life in a ‘holocratic’ company feel like?

The short answer to how holacracy rids a company of bad management practices is basically that it appears to rid a company of all people management practices. Simple, right? And not all bad. In fact, as I read the early chapters of Brian Robertson’s “Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World”, I found myself saying “Eureka” quite often. His focus on an explicit governance process in which roles and their accountabilities are clearly defined is brilliant. In too many companies today people are confused about who’s accountable for what, and there’s often too much separation between the person accountable for an outcome and the people who actually do the work to deliver that outcome (the R’s and the A’s if you speak RACI). Holacracy does away with that issue. If a role is accountable for something, the role owns it, the person in that role does it, and nobody else has the right to tell that person how to do it! So far, so good!

But I ran into one big issue with holacracy. The more I go into it, the more I’m reminded of Star Trek’s Spock and his Vulcan mentality. Spock famously said, “May I say that I have not thoroughly enjoyed serving with humans? I find their illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant.” Well, as far as I can tell, holacracy might work really well if everyone was Vulcan, and acted entirely logically all the time. But we don’t. Software engineers are some of the most logical people we’ve got (a good thing if one wants software to work), which is probably why holacracy was “invented” by Brian Robertson, a very experienced and talented software engineer. It clearly seems perfectly natural to him.

My issue is that I see non-software people struggling with logic and critical thinking every day. Emotions get in the way, habits get in the way, self-interest gets in the way. Plus, the world of work is crazy and fast moving, and people are having a really hard time just keeping up. Yes, holacracy, in theory, simplifies things – but for most normal people it’s still just too hard a left turn from how they currently work, and have worked for years. Holacracy requires that people keep how things are organized in their head, otherwise they are constantly looking up who owns what in the governance records, or finding themselves processing tensions in a tactical meeting to synch and triage next actions (yes that’s “holacratic speak”). It’s a whole new language, and a whole new set of rules. In other words, to an American, adopting holacracy in your current organization probably feels like everybody changing jobs at the same time and having to speak German instead of English – while chewing gum.

It’s not surprising that it would be hard to switch. In the early ‘90s (when Michael Hammer and James Champy wrote “Reengineering the Corporation”), companies realized that organizing around processes rather than functions was the right thing to do. It made work easier, cut out unnecessary handoffs between process participants, and saved money. However people soon learned that it was very difficult to switch on the fly from a functional to a process-driven organization. It’s really hard to run the business AND change radically. It’s much easier to start up a new organization; just ask the teams that established Astra Zeneca in the early 90’s. Now 20+ years later I see the same challenge. It’s simply too hard to switch from a traditional top-down management system to a holacracy.

Brian Robertson states that holacracy is really an all or nothing thing. That’s my problem. I recognize that so much in holacracy is great, but I feel that for most companies it’s simply too hard to adopt all of it at once. The pragmatists need to figure out how to adopt the best aspects of holacracy without driving average (non-Vulcan) people crazy in the process! I want holacracy to work, I really do, but I just don’t know how to make it easy enough. In today’s VUCA world, we must “emphasize “easy to execute” rather than “the correct solution”. And fans of holacracy will appreciate the irony in that.


* Not sure what a holacracy is?  Wikipedia defines it as, “a social technology or system of organizational governance in which authority and decision-making are distributed throughout a holarchy of self-organizing teams rather than being vested in a management hierarchy.”  You can read more here.


Want more? Check out this interview that Marcus did with PeopleFirmer Molly Ann Huber about the pros and cons of holacracy:

About the author:

Marcus Scott, PeopleFirm
A founding partner of PeopleFirm, Marcus has 20 years of experience as a business thought leader. Both as a consultant and as an internal employee, he has helped a variety of corporations with their business and people strategies, external and internal marketing programs, and new product and service development. Marcus has maintained a passion and respect for the human element of organizations throughout his career. He is equally adept at both highly strategic projects that define how companies compete in the labor market and the day-to-day details of executing an employee survey program. His focus (some might call it an obsession) on structure and patterns enables him to convey complex information in easily understandable terms that can be translated into clear insight for executives, managers, and front-line employees alike. His current areas of focus include people strategy and driving high performance through employee engagement.

PeopleFirm is a management and HR consulting firm dedicated to helping you achieve that ultimate win-win: inspired people driving inspiring performance. We focus on effective tools, measurable outcomes, real results, and getting your people out of their seats and engaged in your company’s growth. We use people strategy, talent management, organizational performance, and change management, to help you partner with your people to build an organization that excels in today’s new world of work. People are your last competitive frontier. Make them count.

Your people = your success.