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Beware the Latest Buzzword: Is ‘Holacracy’ Just Teaming in Disguise?

NDInsights-Holacracy-ImageWhen Zappos indicated its strategic shift to the concept of “holacracy,” and suggested that management titles would be dissolved, everyone sat up and took notice.  What is holacracy?  What new social engineering is going on that we need to know about and perhaps copy? Not unlike the buzz of Total Quality Management, Lean, Six-Sigma, and Self-Directed Work Teams, holacracy might be the next best thing.  So, off to explore.

Holacracy apparently has four key components (see if these ring a bell):

1. A lean and adaptable organization focusing on minimally sufficient improvements and a recognition that concrete tension exists between what is and what is desired.

2. Highly effective meetings with explicit role definitions, behavioral rules that prevent dominance, and clear outcomes with fast, incremental improvements.  Tactical meetings focus on triaging the work to get it done.

3. Clearly distributed authority that suggests that it “bakes” empowerment into the core of the organization, integrating the benefits of top-down and bottom-up authority approaches.  Everyone becomes a leader of their own role and a follower of others.

4. Purpose-driven work by moving beyond “it’s all about the people” to “its all about the purpose.”  It separates working “on” the organization (governance) from working “in” the organization (operations).

I was struck by the similarity of holacracy to high-performance team-based organizations.  The same four elements are designed into any teaming structure.  Teaming reduces the layers of “watching” roles and increases the side-to-side communication in order to make the organization more lean and adaptable.  Teams use daily huddles and weekly highly structured meetings to drive outcomes and actions.  Teams distribute authority through their charters, role descriptions and RASCI charts in order to increase accountability at every level within the organization.  The team’s charter is entirely purpose driven with clearly written definitions of business case, mission, goals and work breakdown plans.

So, is it just that we’ve grown tired of the word “team” or frustrated because creating these changes within an organization takes monumental effort (e.g. think about changing all the meetings in your organization to “highly effective”)?  Does grand-standing by taking away titles really change a culture or just create confusion?  Is this another social engineering experiment that has goodness at its core, but may end up the “flavor of the month.”

I sincerely believe that employees are looking for changes in organizational culture that are modeled by their leaders in day-to-day interactions that show a real desire to include people, trust-building behaviors, many opportunities to engage and share thoughts which, as competency grows, results in true empowerment.   Call it what you will – holacracy, teaming – either way, it takes hard work and a long-term commitment.

Deborah Mackin is the author of The Team-Building Tool Kit series (Amacom Publishing).  She has been working with teams for over 30 years in companies such as Coca-Cola, Delta Faucet, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, the U.S. Navy and Alcoa.  She is currently working on her fifth book, MemoryJogger for Teams.

2 Responses to “Beware the Latest Buzzword: Is ‘Holacracy’ Just Teaming in Disguise?” Leave a reply ›

  • Thanks Deborah for the article about Holacracy, I appreciate the inquiry. To answer your question: No :-) Holacracy is not just teaming in disguise; there’s much more to it than different names. For the record, there’s been quite a bit of misinformation about it lately, Holacracy is not really a “flat” structure. My colleague Alexia wrote “Five Misconceptions About Holacracy” https://medium.com/about-holacracy/da84d8ba15e1

  • Good insights from New Directions. The most effective management style is timeless; relationship with commitment to people and the organization; whatever an org chooses to call it. Functional leadership can be both horizontal and lateral but clearly, the buck has to stop somewhere. Although it sounds like a utopian reinvention, it has some salient points but in the end we all know too many chiefs will accomplish little but endless debate and delay. If everyone has equal input and authority, it cannot be a sustainable model. Maybe I don’t have enough info but from what I was able to glean I wouldn’t structure my org like this. I would have limited open venues; round tables but someone has to make the decisions and we see the inefficiency of big gov and we all know (well perhaps not) that if our businesses were structured like this, gross inefficiency will arise. The only power any department has is in saying “No” to another and that will inevitably arise as a problematic human vanity. It would be interesting to be a “fly on the wall”.

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