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Holacracy and getting work done

Holacracy helps self-governing teams organise themselves around their work. With circles and roles you organise how your work; with governance meetings you embrace continuous evolution of that organisation; and with tactical meetings, you synchronise teams and triage tensions in the day-to-day operations. You might wonder: between all that process of structuring governance and mandatory meetings, how are we supposed to get any work done?

What you should and should not do

At first glance, Holacracy primarily revolves around roles. Roles are defined by a purpose, domain and accountabilities. A role is the closest you get to a job description from traditional organisations. By defining roles and assigning them to people, we set responsibilities, in turn ensuring certain work gets done. Except that’s not how it actually works.

When we use roles to give people work, we are telling them what to do. But Holacracy is about self-governance. Roles are not about defining responsibilities to tell people what to do, but about defining purposes and domains to tell people what outcomes to achieve. Given multiple roles, everybody makes his or her own judgement about priorities, strategies and tactics. In a Holacracy organisation, the governance structure is not about defining what you should do. Given the purpose of the organisation, you “should” do anything and everything. In a Holacracy organisation, the governance structure is about telling you what you should or may not do, and thereby give you the freedom to do everything else.


Let’s use an example to explain. Your team grows and you need to upgrade your Slack plan to a more expensive tier. The team members look at each other and ask: “who is responsible for our Slack account? Who is going to upgrade it?” You might say: “Sorry, not my responsibility. Nothing in our governance structure says that I am responsible for our Slack account.” Such a shrug has high opportunity costs: it would be better to immediately act, rather than let the issue linger. Holacracy tells you to just do it.

Seeking advice

One key concept in this self-governing process is not formally part of Holacracy but no less crucial to its functioning: the obligation to seek advice. In a self-governing organisation, the team agrees that anybody can take any action, as long as he or she first seeks the advice of anyone else whose work or domain is impacted by that action. This is not seeking permission, nor seeking consensus, but just advice. Once you have heard others’ opinions, you yourself make your own decision.

Holacracy gives us some tools (domains and policies) to explicitly curtail this freedom in certain areas or under certain conditions, such as limiting company expenses beyond €1000. When it makes sense to do so, you can reserve ownership of certain domains to particular roles. But beyond that, anything goes.


Does Holacracy make people more “productive”? No, the work is just the work. How you do it, is unchanged. But how you discover, allocate and coordinate the work does change, and this does make organisations more productive — not necessarily in output, but in outcomes.

  • Holacracy
  • GTD
  • purpose
  • productivity
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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