Holacracy, the smart manager free system

- Agile and Lean Principles

by Vasco Duarte

When I read that apparel retailer Zappos was in transition to a manager free system called Holacracy, my first thought was, Holawhat? And my second, Manager free? That sounds good. I did my homework and almost immediately found out that Holacracy has a constitution, just like Happy Melly does. I realized this could only be a happy story. One that could change your organizational chart forever.

About Holacracy

But what is Holacracy? I’ll give you the short version.

It’s a system that doesn’t have job titles, managers or traditional hierarchy; instead you use series of ‘circles’ that overlap each other. A circle is in fact a part of the work that has to be done.

For instance: ‘product development’ can be a ‘big’ circle, with all kinds of little circles in it, like a ‘creation’ circle and so on.

Smart, in a system like this hierarchy isn’t about people, but about circles. And the focus is always on a common goal. It’s designed in order to make the people in the circles (they don’t have jobs, but ‘roles’) accountable for what they do.

People can have several roles in those circles. Every circle has a ‘lead link’, someone who makes sure the purpose is held and that designates people to certain roles. Mind you, she isn’t the boss, this is just part of her role. Everything should be as transparent as possible so problems can be solved quickly.

I think Holacracy is about hiring the very best people out there and trust them to make the right decisions.

Closing the gap between what is and what could be

As in traditional organizations, there are meetings. But they are a bit different. Jason Stirman, who works at Medium, one of the first companies to adopt Holacracy, tells that those meetings are meant to bring ‘tensions’ to the surface. In his words ‘any difference between what is and what could be’. 

Meetings in Holacracy aren’t meant to drag on. The participants start with making a list with points and then quickly see what can be solved. People in a meeting agree or don’t agree on the tension and suggest solutions. If it can’t be solved, a new meeting is planned with people who probably will be able to solve it.

It really is the other way around compared to traditional management, where managers try to solve the problems of others.

There’s more to it obviously, it’s all in the constitution.

It’s all about accountability

The best thing about Holacracy is that it urges you to work out things that bother you, also problems you have with co-worker. Since you are accountable, not solving an issue like that is your problem.

That’s a good thing if you ask me. Although I like the system very much, that doesn’t say it’s flawless.

At Medium they soon figured that two important aspects weren’t present in Holacracy: praise and feedback. They solved that by designing new roles called ‘Domain Leads’.

These are experienced workers that aren’t responsible for the work that goes on, but for people. Not like managers, but like mentors. 

At Medium they invented the ‘High Five Machine’. A dashboard where everybody can praise a colleague, the messages streaming throughout the office. Cool, don’t you think? Reminds me of the Wall of Honor they have at Seedbox.

All in all, I think it’s very interesting. If anyone has any experience with it in practice, I love to hear your story!

Photo by Orin Zebest


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