Over the last couple of years I’ve had several people point me towards a new “breakthrough” “amazing” “truly integral” “third tier” approach to organisational design and management: Holacracy.  The implication was you need to learn this; the nice side was that people aligned my interests with ‘breakthrough,’ ‘amazing,’ ‘truly integral’ and ‘third tier.’

Frankly, in the world of organisations and getting things done collectively, I’ll settle for anything ‘first tier’ that actually works!  For those not familiar with ‘first tier’ whatever, don’t worry, the references in this piece stop here (or start here if you’re curious – but be warned it’s a deep rabbit hole;).  I’m also quite wary of new ‘management methods’ as they populate like rabbits, and tend to be as useful as the proverbial lucky rabbits foot.

Holacracy is, as the name suggests, an organisational governance method that attempts to embody Holarchy.   Hol what?  Well, holoarchy is an extension of the philosophical observation of holons, a term coined by Arthur Koestler, and popularised most recently by Ken Wilber and his version of Integral Theory, the AQAL model.  A Holon is anything that is both a part and a whole at the same time.  A whole/part – a brief history of holons is here.  The organisational approach is that there are natural (read ‘healthy’) collections of holons (the part aspect) that form functional wholes (teams, organisations etc).  Just so we’re clear, Holacracy isn’t the first effort at this… just the most recent, and the one most often passing across my desk lately.   It is also a misapplication, technically speaking, of how Ken Wilber would regard a holon… another messy little rabbit hole if ever I journeyed one;)

The other week I had a discussion with the executive staff and executive director of a community organisation in the USA.  The community has thousands of loosely associated members worldwide, a 15+ year formation history, and real viability challenges in terms of ‘getting things done.’  Well, that’s not  quite right, they’ve survived this long right?  But from their point of view, they’re looking to take the next steps towards greater coherency in collective actions.  Something most organisations can relate to…

In presenting an opportunity for a (pro-bono) strategic foresight project to them, the method of Holacracy again reared its’ head.   Apparently it’s the flavour of the month, something everyone is aligned to and looking to implement as their next big step.

Well, in line with that, I’d like to offer some reflections as someone who has engaged in organisational establishment and transformation professionally for the past 10+ years.  Let’s call them some not-so-subtle cautionary considerations.  Not-so-subtle largely because I’m in a hurry, but also because I want the warnings to stand out clearly for them: they’ll risk being called half formed, biased and non-appreciative… but if they are, at least we’re talking about them.

So, what are my warnings?  Well, let’s start with a fly-by critique.  Holacracy could easily be described (negatively) as:

1.  Largely just a rebadging of the agile software project management method, with a dash of lean/six-sigma for flavour, and as such is primarily focused on efficiency, a useful thing, but potentially imbalanced (read destructive to the organisation and its people) if held above other dimensions of value creation such as effectiveness, coherency, capability and asset development, and competency in direction setting (strategy).

2.  Not possessing or presenting or clearly prompting any praxis for accessing and accounting for the ‘depth’ dimension of an organisation, at any structural level it occurs.  What do I mean by depth?  Well you might be familiar with Spiral Dynamics or Jean Gebser or any other number psychological or cultural models of actual human development of understanding, meaning making and decision processes.  If not, please avail yourself of a really worthwhile rabbit hole and read about levels of development.

3.  Very similar to what already is practiced by healthy, progressive organisations all across the world.  The ideas it integrates will be very familiar to management consultants of many stripes, participants in tech start-ups, software developers and so on.  The founder does not, from what I can see on the publicity website or in reading the core articles, pay any respect to the large bodies of knowledge these practices have emerged from and created.  Unless you can spot these given past knowledge, then new users of the approach will be bereft of a massive potential resource to guide their experiments of implementing Holacracy.  One also has to wonder why the founder hasn’t been explicit about these…?  Some of the big ‘borrowed’ themes I haven’t already mentioned include:

3.1.   Purpose driven/values based management

3.2.   Emotionally intelligent leadership

3.3.   Collaborative action research

3.4.   World Cafe and other ‘integrative’ decision processes

3.5.   P2P network logic (well, only lightly…lots more down this rabbit hole that might actually be of real value to progressive organisations, including integrally informed ones)

4.  Given its action research and agile basis, unfortunately the founders ‘talk’ of being focused on creating positive futures is in fact potentially corrosive in its ‘walk’ to any coherent long term view, foresight informed strategic capability.  The here and now, the ever present ‘present’ is fantastic for individuals to get into more… but they then need the tools for working with the expanded now… that includes re-interpreting the past (generating hindsight) and exploring future potentials (generating foresight), before, and as, these are integrated in the expanded now (generating insight) to inform the ‘reflecting’ and ‘acting’ stages in particular of the action research process.  This could be incorporated… but the point is that designing a method by ‘compensating for negatives’ while useful, is only half the picture at best.

5.  Finally, and perhaps most critically, the promotional materials do not say anything about how the individual can learn, internally, to make the shifts required to first appreciate, then be actively open to trying it out (rather than passively open –  ie saying yes, but being closed in reality), and finally through practice discovering how they actually understand Holacracy.

So, as you can tell, I’ve only read the publicly available information on the founder’s website – I haven’t spoken to him, or other certified consultants in the method, nor have I attended a workshop or accessed other more ‘in-depth’ resources – if they exist publicly, which I don’t see any evidence of yet.  So it is entirely possible that my critique can easily be batted away as the rantings of an ignoramus; we’ll see.

Now, to the good points, and these are just a few:

A. Holacracy does integrate the excellent practices mentioned – purpose/value driven decision making, agile project management, decision typology and related forums, action research…and even borrows one part of the key governance insights embedded in the most successful large scale project management method, Prince II.

B. It frames these pieces together in simple, accessible ways, proffering a common language, that once adopted means that the organisation can at least start having the same strategic dialogue – the precursor to any coherent organisational development, no matter the framework being followed or evolved.

C. It also provides process check lists and how to guides: templates for the basics of organisation, how to run a meeting, how to choose who sits in on what meetings and what sort of meeting it should be: open, strategic, tactical etc.  These alone can give a coherency to organisational governance praxis that for many organisations, is assumed, and is in fact quite chaotic in practice.  This approach also reduces the apprehend, interpret, apply and reflection cycle that comes with implementing new methods… skipping straight to the ‘apply it this way,’ then ‘use your own reflections to guide its evolution.’  And that openness and keen prompting for organisations to make it their own, is also commendable (and quite simply, realistic;)

D. It is polished, promotion ready and presented in an accessible, commercially sensitive manner – the key ingredient so many new ideas fail to include in the mix, but alas, many new management fads don’t past focusing on this step either.

So overall, Holacracy gives me hope, even if the spelling of the name as ho-lac-racy (race you to a whole lot of lack?) is unfortunate – sticking with Holocracy might have been more aligned.  Holacracy could be a very effective rallying call to saner governance structures and processes, a language and framework approach that could propagate well, implies that Holacracy itself is open to be evolved, not just tailored in implementation, and also embeds in its core story, with the lilt towards holocracy and holon theory, keywords that some users will follow into developing more integral and functional and, heaven forbid, humane organisational approaches.

But what about my warnings?  Well, not to leave them hanging, there are alternatives and remedies available.  Will they fit within the streamlined, pre-packaged and depth stripped presentation of Ho-lac-racy?  Only the bold experimenters will find out… but to round out my uninvited contribution to this consideration, here’s a few pointers:

1.  Rebadging & Balancing – Balancing the integration of different bodies of knowledge is never an easy thing to do, let alone master.  But it is, in most organisations, the normal way of life: a perpetual struggle to absorb the latest fads, newest learnings and retrofit them into a dynamic organisation with its own very strong inertia and implicit leanrings about ‘how things work.’   I’ll deal with rebadging in ‘bodies of knowledge’ – point 3 below – but for the balance component, I really only have one philosopher-practitioner who’s approach I can vouch for: Dr Richard Hames’ recent 5 Litericies of Global Leadership.  My potentially glib summary is that it is written for strategic minds entering into pluralistic sensitivites, to help guide them through that potentially narcissistic and nihilistic swamp, through to a shiny new integration on the hill of hope, so to speak (SD:er/FS-GT).  It outlines the philosophy, the theory, the praxis and developmental pathway of a truly integral approach to designing and conducting human collaborative enterprise.  Go there, absorb.  Best advice I can give anyone.  Period.

2. Depth – Follow the links above… you could, for example, invite one of thousands of Spiral Dynamics consultants into your ongoing conversation, draw on one the many other research based depth models available (both individual and organisational), or simply (and likely very easily for consciousness focused groups, use state shifting techniques like U-Theory) and start thinking about what else might be required to retro-fit your organisation with this governance overlay.  The point is before rushing in, consider the depth of the waters…

3.  Bodies of Knowledge – Again, follow the links above in the critique to get introduced to the wealth of information on these antecedents.  When, as I’m confident any application of Holacracy will, your organisation runs into troubles and the promoters can’t quite produce a solution, going to the foundations might both provide insight and access to experienced advisors, and also, perhaps more powerfully, offer the raw tools, the principles and practices that can then be applied to develop modifications that more truly make it integral to your organisations functioning.

4.  Foresight – Well, this is a broader topic, without simple links to get an overview.  Suffice to say, before congratulating yourself on a forward looking strategy, or on the flexibility inherent with the idea of ‘dynamic steering,’ remember that simply being reactive is not the same as responsive.  One is immediate, and unthinking, no matter how much discussion is involved.  The other helps structure the strategic conversation to ensure that change and the new is sensed, comprehended, interpreted and then responded to as rapidly and appropriately as possible, within a longer term view.  The former tends to white ant the latter, by the way.  Perhaps start getting a feel for real strategy by reviewing Richard Hames’ book mentioned above – Richard is one of the world’s most experienced futurists: you’ll soon discover that Holacracy has echoes that miss the depth of Richard’s ‘Strategic Navigation.’

5.  Individual Development – This is the part that could hurt the most.  The potential disarray and disappointment that can arise from attempting something without the necessary supports or individual focused literacy development tools to enable participants to start to effectively grapple with, and realise in practice, the stated purpose of this approach.  It can kill not only the change effort, but poison the ground for the next one too.  You might like to draw from practical guides in this area, like Richard Hames’ 5 Litericies, something individuals can relate to, learn about and grow into in a repeatable fashion…and/or perhaps start with an appreciation of Professor Robert Kegan’s well founded Immunity To Change research, model and practices.  A real gold mine of practical know-how on assisting individuals to achieve change, together.  Without individual change, it can be easy to apply the old meanings and actions to new words and processes, and get an even worse result: a bastard child without a coherent practical identity, or any parents wanting to take responsibility…

So, all that said, it’s almost another level of critique in the solutions section.  Sorry.

What about the USA community group?  Well, if they have strong internal alignment with the ‘talk’ of Holacracy, and their people are, because of their focus, inherently skilled in depth and individual change, then this might be one experiment they are more likely to prove positive then other organisations.   The two most powerful facts about them adopting Holacracy might be that a) they have most people on the same page, pointing in the same direction and motivated to experiment together, and b) they will be adopting the same common language for going meta on their organisational processes and development – the core engine of any strategic capability in an organisation.  These alone could mean no matter what the framework adopted, they’ll start progressing… and that is exactly what they want to achieve.

So please, by all means, go forth and apply Holacracy…as Terry Patten recently noted, it could be regarded as an “Integral Killer App” (I’m sure he meant that positively, but killer it could be…)  But, for your sake and that of your organisation and everyone in it, please remember depth, foresight and individual development.  Oh, and if you want to preach its value, just remember it always pays to be a little humble and appreciative of all the work that has been done by others in the same space – repeating the hype helps no one in practice, and leads to prickly reviews like this one.