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Holacracy and being human

An optimisation for machines instead of humans, that is sold by great marketing. That is how Holacracy, an “operating system” for self-governing organisations, has been criticised. My experience has been different: I have found it to be liberating.

Superficial rigidity

Granted, Holacracy is rigid. It prescribes meetings with fixed formats; it involves quite some record-keeping; and it has a lot of rules—it even has a constitution to be signed. Tactical meetings do not seek to give everyone a voice, but to move work forward. A facilitator will sidestep governance objections that the rules deem “invalid”. And ultimately, circles and roles provide a level of hierarchy that is seemingly antithetical to self-organisation. The criticism levelled at Holacracy is unsurprising, if superficial.

It does not follow that a Holacracy-driven organisation is itself rigid—quite the contrary! Take a game like football. It has (quite a few) rules. Players and audiences alike accept those rules not as a means to limit players, but to give them a level playing field in which to excel at their jobs. An exciting football match is not defined by its rules, but by the 22 football players on the pitch that use the safety of the rules to excel.

Not safe for humans

Flourishing within Holacracy’s rules means to move around, introspect, and put creativity to work. You energise your roles. Consider traditional organisations and their unwritten rules, secret agendas, fixed hierarchies, empire building and silos… this is a game where the rules are whatever the highest-paid person in the room believes them to be. This is a nice example from The Problem with Saying “My Door Is Always Open”:

Organizational systems contain many subtle codes that encourage employees to conform. Perhaps the most obvious, one that breeds considerable cynicism, is when a powerful person tells people to challenge him… and then punishes those who do.

Rules are often unclear, implicit and constantly changing. It makes taking interpersonal risks unattractive and leads workers into a fake dichotomy between “personal” and “professional lives”. It leads to resignation to formal job descriptions and shirking of responsibilities. It leads to disengagement. It leads to not bringing your whole self to work. Now that is not safe for humans.

Explicit and transparent

Holacracy is not necessarily immune to such corporate illnesses—just like not all traditional organisations suffer them equally—but its explicitness and transparency are a lot less conducive to it. Clarity on how work works affords workers to be safer, more empowered and more engaged. To be sure, for those that thrive in ambiguity, power play and empire building, such explicitness and transparency are a challenge—or even downright threatening. But the organisational benefits take precedence over the individual’s discomfort; after all, it’s not the best players, but the best teams that take home the prizes.

Holacracy gives us a lot of rules. But they tell us nothing about how we should treat each other, deal with conflicts or organise compensation. That’s all up to us, just like it always was. But they do give us the basic safety to engage in that discussion. And with that, I have found it the most wholesome and stimulating organisational model I have experienced.

Further reading

  1. Holacracy: not safe enough to try
  2. Management and Organization at Medium
  3. The Humanity of Holacracy
  • holacracy
  • self-organisation
Arjan van der Gaag

Arjan van der Gaag

A thirtysomething software developer, historian and all-round geek. This is his blog about Ruby, Rails, Javascript, Git, CSS, software and the web. Back to all talks and articles?


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