Can Holacracy solve the classic two-way struggle between managers and teams?

You’ll probably recognise the classic clash between managers and teams: Teams think managers lack vision, and do not give enough freedom. Yet managers think teams are not productive nor entrepreneurial enough. And now what?! I personally think Holacracy – a way to work without bosses – works. Having a boss-less organisation in which people are fundamentally free to organise their own work greatly reduces stress between them. Allow me to explain.

Control vs. Freedom

99,99% Of organisations still runs on the old hierarchical operating model. The basic belief is that management sets targets, distributes work and controls progress. This is at times tiresome, non-adaptive and narrow-minded. However, it focuses energy. From the top down. It speeds up things. It gives status to managers and provides stability internally. It has a purpose, clearly. But. What if new ideas emerge? What if targets change? What if people leave? What if a problem occurs? Hell breaks loose. Fixed processes no longer apply and the organisation itself hampers growth. How to solve this?

Holacracy does not run on people hierarchy. It runs on purpose, tasks and roles hierarchy. Roles are filled by people who are flexible to move around and switch roles. By design, there is no hierarchy between people. In practice this means that at Fronteer for example people create their own actions and projects, based on ‘tensions’ in a circle (organised group of roles with a purpose). They then decide to execute them. They set timing and budget. They involve others when needed. No one checks up on them. This does not mean however that there is no communication. We actually communicate a lot. In fact, you need others to fulfil your role optimally. But, in essence, you are your own boss. Finally..

Management vs. Informal leadership

What happens in strict organisational models is that people seek ‘elephant paths’. Also, there seem to be many influential ’stakeholders’ who are important in decision making. Sometimes even, the biggest deals are made at the bar, at night. None of this is documented or seen in an organisational chart. This is informal, intangible. Management has set clear rules (investment criteria, innovation stages, business cases) – but they lack real impact. More often strategic choices are made on a hunch or because people simple sell well internally. Is this an ideal world? No. But it is reality.

What if the informal leaders get a formal role in an organisation? What if there is always an opportunity for everybody to create roles that are needed? This is what happens in Holacracy. The organisation changes every day. Mostly details change, sometimes it is more fundamental. What is does is it releases a tremendous amount of energy within the team. People flourish and take on tasks no one knew they loved. Also, crucial parts of the business get designed by the team. In the end, many leaders emerge. They feel empowered and happy. No drawbacks? Yes there are. Often they do more than they can handle. A ‘role-overload’ occurs. But people help people manage themselves better. And even for this tasks leaders emerge!

To do lists vs. Getting things done

I still remember the days where I would go through endless lists of tasks for the company. How very boring and non-productive. While reviewing I would always get frustrated because I got a feeling of being less accomplished, personally and as a team. I never knew how to handle this. Somehow plans never got executed and goals always shifted. The number of apps claiming to be miraculous problem solvers for people like me was endless. It only costs money, without any effect in the end.

And now, this is kind of crazy, but I only have my own to-do list (yes I have one). This means I focus on my jobs, and trust others to do their own. And vice versa. Each circle has meetings (we call them tacticals) which leads to more actions. But often this is not even the case. The basic idea is that people take care of their own stuff and you mind yours. This is refreshing and calming. The net result is that I am actually surprised by the number of actions people have undertaken when I talk to them. When I came back from 3 weeks of holidays I was astonished by the amount of activity. I could read this back in Twist – our wonderful replacement for email.

Employees vs. Colleagues

I would like to finish off by stating that the relationship between people has changed. Between people – and myself as well. By law people are employees, but it does not feel that way. We are a team, respectful and honest to each other. Sometimes I even think about it as a more grown-up version of working life.

Finally, some last words

So, can Holacracy solve the struggle? Yes: as long as it is 100% implemented internally. If not, old habits remain and people do not work to their full potential. Old-school managers can seriously destroy the fresh new working culture. To be honest, I sometimes jump back in management mode and I have to pull myself out again. I have been wired over the years to push commands though reporting lines. Now this no longer exists. This means I have to reinvent my own way of working as well. I’d better create a vision fast then…