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What is Holacracy?

Holcarcy short intro

In February, the Office of the CIO began implementing Holacracy and we’ve basically been running part of our organization as a Holacracy. But the first obvious question is: “What is a Holacracy?"

Holacracy is an organizational governance model that replaces the traditional hierarchical governance model that has been used for centuries. The Holacracy governance model is different from a traditional hierarchy in several ways. The book “Reinventing Organizations” by Frederic Laloux talks about the evolution of organizations, how organizational models evolve over time, and how society is at a tipping point of change (YouTube talk by Laloux). Holacracy is one of the models emerging. You can read more about Holacracy by searching the web or checking out the website holacracy.org. For now, I’ll focus on a couple key differences that I see in Holacracy from the perspective of a long time technology leader and a leader in government.

Focus on organizing work

Firstly, Holacracy organizes work instead of people. Traditionally, there is a one-to-one relationship between an individual employee and a position in an organization. Common work conversations include discussions about the chain of command, the number of direct reports, a person's job title, and the like. What I’ve observed is that often, over time, a position becomes the person's identity or expression of self-worth in the workplace, which leads to the work becoming personalized. For a short time this is OK, but this can become a real impediment for change once these work identities become intransigent. When the business needs to change, this likely also drives internal changes in the areas of focus or capabilities of an organization. Employees will need to learn new skills, change how work gets done, or leave behind some work in favor of other work. This can feel like an attack from the perspective of the individual experiencing this change because their self-worth is so tightly coupled with the single position they hold.  Of course, it’s not always the case because individual attitudes and the magnitude of the change will influence the reaction. I’ve also observed that companies that experience a high-degree of regular organizational change have less of an issue with this because employees get “used to” their roles changing regularly. In fact, some organizations use regular organizational change for the sake of change as a strategy for staying adaptive and agile.

In a Holacracy you don’t see an employee filling exactly one position. Rather, you see roles which describe a type of work an organization needs to get done and then employees opt-in to multiple roles depending on their specific skills, interests, and the need of the organization. Holacracy seeks to identify the work that an organization needs to fulfill its purpose and then groups the work into discrete roles and collections of roles called circles. People are then identified to work (steward is closer to the intent) the various roles and often assigned to a dozen or more roles in the organization. I hypothesize that an organization using the Holacracy governance model would experience less of the “personalization of positions” because a person’s identity and value isn’t concentrated in a single position but rather spread across a number of roles.

I think this shifting from this one-to-one model to a model of one-to-many is liberating for two reasons. Firstly, it does a better job describing an individual's actual contribution in an organization, which is often understated or hidden in a hierarchy. Secondly, it recognizes that people today bring so much more expertise and experience to the table and maximizes their contribution by creating an environment that makes it "normal" to engage in a variety of ways that can change regularly.

Picture of holacracy processOrganizational Governance

The second area I find interesting are the prescribed meetings. In a Holacracy, there are two core meetings; the Tactical Meeting and the Governance Meeting. Although Tactical meetings require certain types of conversations to happen in a particular way, these meetings are very much akin to many operational meetings organizations have today. In fact, if you’re familiar with Scrum, it feels much like a daily standup meeting. Stand-ups are focused meetings to provide quick updates and resolve impediments. Advocates of Holacracy would say that the Tactical meetings are more efficient than what most organizations have today. Although that may be true, conceptually the meeting purpose is very familiar.

The Governance meeting is a very different beast. I don’t know of a comparable meeting that exists in a traditional organization. The Governance meeting has the specific purpose of updating the design of the organization: the roles, accountabilities, policies, and domains that clarify how work gets processed in an organization. These meetings happen every two to four weeks and the result of each meeting is an incremental change in organizational structure, accountabilities, domains, and policies. This work is the equivalent to incrementally organizing and updating position descriptions every two weeks. That alone makes it really different, but then add the fact that these changes are proposed, modified, and implemented by the employees themselves.

The Governance Meeting is specifically designed to give employees (Holacracy calls them Partners) a place to call out gaps (called Tensions) in the organization’s design that are inhibiting the employees from achieving the purpose of their roles or the organization's purpose. In a traditional governance model, this is largely done by the CEO or Division manager when they design the organizational structure. Sometimes these organizational structures get updated as part of a “reorg” but these are driven top down and always cause great anxiety and drama for employees and managers alike, which I mentioned earlier. Moreover, let’s be honest, the change often doesn't make a difference in the organization's outcomes.

I love the concept in the Holacracy model that employees, who are closer to the customer and delivering on the purpose of the organization, are empowered to incrementally improve and test the design of the organization and that the changes come from real gaps actually experienced. The idea that a single leader is omniscient and can craft the perfect organizational structure now seems ridiculous.

Michael DeAngelo
Formerly the Deputy CIO; now with roles like Lead Link and Holacracy Implementation
Holacracy blog