Seven elements of the Holacracy system which influenced my style of working and thinking in a positive way
I worked in a Holacracy system for about 2.5 years at a Berlin-based tech company (Mimi Hearing Technologies). Holacracy was implemented by the team itself in a slow process from mid-2015 onwards, almost 1.5 years after the company was incorporated. Back then the team was around 13 people. I joined the team in 2014 as their first employee. Since then I was part of the core leadership and was filling ‘lead link’ roles in Communication/ Brand and Culture. Having had the chance to implement and work in such a system within in fast-paced startup environment has been a unique learning opportunity for me.
Last year I left the company after almost 4 years and took time to reflect and look at the different elements of the Holacracy system. During the last years, I had countless conversations about the system itself, why it doesn’t seem to work, and what does work, and if self-organization is the future of work. This is the first blog post from a series of posts, taking a closer look at some elements of the Holacracy system. It can be seen as an attempt to offer a perspective from a hands-on and very pragmatic experience of working with it.
1 “What do you need?”
If I should take only one element from my experience with working in a Holacracy structure, it would be this question. It fundamentally changed the way how I think about problems, blockers, and conflicts. The question is asked by the facilitator in a tactical meeting. Running through the meeting agenda with the goal to solve tensions, is the core of the tactical meeting. The focus of the meeting is to have everyone bring up tensions which block work. The goal is to find one next step in order to keep going. It’s not about discussing steps three, four, and five. It’s only about the first. When presenting your tension and being forced to say, what you would need to get going, your mindset shifts immediately into problem-solving. The facilitator asks the person who contributed a tension “What do you need?”The facilitator doesn’t ask, which is your problem, what happened, etc. The focus is on the need of the person who has a tension. When a next step is found the facilitator asks “Did you get what you need?” The way how you approach any kind of challenging task, any problem or conflict suddenly changes. It mentally shifts you from a problem to a solution and next step based thinking and filters out unnecessary arguments and conversations about potential future problems.
2 “Will it bring the company backward?”
Another powerful question usually asked during governance meetings. The system encourages a, “try out fast, iterate and change later” approach. When looking at a proposal or idea to change something, there is often the tendency to block something, rather than trying it out. We humans dislike change. It’s uncomfortable, it means we need to move and review and well, get out of the comfort zone. “Will it bring the company backward?” is a great question because it pushes you to try stuff out. If it wouldn’t bring the company backward, you better try it because it might actually be beneficial. What I found very interesting to observe here is the fact, that we kept forgetting the “try out fast, change later” approach. I assume, when living in a fast-changing world, working in an agile environment is sometimes just a bit too much. Some things are ok like they are and don’t need to be changed. The feeling I often had is, that you can’t really keep up with the speed things change in the organization. It’s beautiful and difficult to digest at the same time.
3 Meeting structure
Tactical and Governance Meetings are the two main forms of meetings in a Holacracy structure. Both of these meetings have a very different goal. By distinguishing between operational tensions in tactical meetings and structural questions in governance meetings you can reach a higher level of clarity and don’t have to mix them when tension arises. On top, the structure of those meetings is very rigid and gives you a lot of guidance and direction, simply by just following the structure. It felt stiff and sometimes even ridiculous in the beginning. Yet, it has been the rigid structure that made meetings with more than 10 people incredibly efficient at times. (Not always though.)
When I talk to people about their jobs, their work, and their challenges, I often have to find out, that my way of looking at jobs, roles, and tasks has changed through role-based thinking in Holacracy. The system aims for a higher level of clarity by defining all the roles you are filling as clear as possible. What I observed is that people suddenly understand they can be more than just “one job description.”They can play out several of their talents. And doing that isn’t weird or awkward but accepted and normal. What it does is, it takes away the weight from one label and having this as the main identifier for you as a human. For example. Tobias is THE designer. That’s how you would hear people introduce themselves or others. And it would be the same to a large extent in a Holacracy organization. Yes, Tobias is a designer but he can also hold the role of the event organizer and brand lead, etc. The system allows people for higher freedom to bring more of themselves into an organization than just one skill or talent. They are allowed to show more of their talents, they are encouraged to take away their boxed up thinking. Roles can bring much clarity. Another crucial element about roles is the fact, that you don’t have to fill them 100%. Sometimes, you “hold” a role, because there is no one else in the company who could do it. You know, you are not the best 100% but you can maybe fill this role up to 30%, or 50% of what would be needed. What it allows you as an organization is to assign roles to people without having to hire someone immediately, OR not having it done at all. The tricky thing with these roles which are not the “main role” for someone, the roles which are not the 100% fit for people is that you need to stay in touch about how someone is getting along with them. It needs a constant dialogue about the workload and the skills required by it. One of the articles which really influenced my thinking was “Give away your legos. Molly Graham describes in this article that it is crucial to stay in a mindset of growing and developing when scaling a team and an organization. That you can’t hold on to jobs and roles but that you would want to “give away your legos” to grow more. Role-Based thinking can allow for such a way of looking at jobs to be done
5 Facilitator/Secretary Role
The facilitator and secretary roles are a crucial element in the meetings. As easy as it sounds and as common or usual it might be for a lot of people in meetings outside Holacracy, having these two roles can make a real difference to any meeting. I got used to these two roles so much, that it is almost exhausting sitting around a table with a bigger group without a defined facilitator and secretary. The facilitator has the task to help solve the needs of participants. This role can play a key role in a successful meeting. Yet, being a great facilitator is an art itself and not everyone has a talent for it. It’s about listening, clear communication, understand when something needs more clarity, understand what speed the meeting needs if you lost people if everyone is still engaged and senses if something is off. If you give this role to someone inexperienced, it impacts the quality of a meeting. The secretary role is supposed to keep track of the next steps and document and organize the meeting itself. Taking the facilitation part of the meeting out of the hands of the lead link role is a great element in Holacracy. The lead link in Holacracy is not allowed to be the facilitator. By that, the “lead” is restricted in a way of potentially playing power-games in meetings.
6 Decision making
Big and difficult topic. Looking back, making decisions, and knowing who is responsible for which decision is a challenge in a rather flat structure. I would say, decision-making was still a major area of improvement. (At least when I left last year in August). Instead of looking at decision-making on a broader level, there is one element in the governance meeting which I do think is very valuable. In Holacracy lingo it’s called “Integrative Decision Making.”I won’t explain now how it works because you can read this up here. What it comes down to is, hearing everyone out who has a seat at the table. Everyone who is present at the meeting has the possibility to propose changes, ask clarifying questions, utter objections, and vote. This is one of the moments within the system where the idea of distributed authority is in full run. You suddenly hear questions you didn’t think of, you hear objections you didn’t think of, you have to dig a bit deeper in explaining because there might be people on the table who have little idea about your field but will be affected by your proposal. As much as Holacracy preaches distributed authority, a decision is a moment when you act it out. When you decide on something and it happens, you execute authority. What I often observed (also about myself) was a certain kind of hesitance towards making a decision. The moment you decide, you are stepping into your power and lead. You stir and give direction. That can be scary. My observation was, that a lot of us hesitated because what happens if this isn’t turning out well? In the end, what holds me back from making a decision was fear. The fear, that what I decided was wrong, not helpful, or that I can’t cope with the consequences. A big portion of feeling comfortable with making decisions come with experience and having the trust established amongst the team. I observed myself becoming much more at ease with deciding during the last years. I found myself often not ready for deciding things that I have never worked on or experienced before. I often asked myself why that was? If you want that everyone feels at ease with making decisions you need to ensure a good way of how to deal with things when they don’t go well. When a marketing campaign didn’t work out the way, it was hoped for. When a product launch deadline was set too tight. When a hire doesn’t turn out to be as great as expected. It’s in these moments when trust is built and where you experience either a moment of shame or a collective spirit of understanding, analyzing, and learning.
One of the big goals of the system is to try to be more transparent. Making roles and jobs to be done, processes, decisions, and problem solving more transparent. Having a rigid structure for everything to not let some sort of social bond between two people decide how and what should be done. I must say, a lot of these things are incredible to watch and see in action. Quite often new team members commented on the fact that everything is so open and transparent. What helped here is definitely the fact that the team was willing to play with open cards right from the start. If you are a young team who is not intoxicated by a political and strategizing sort of thinking it is much easier to set up a high level of transparency right from the beginning. It is another challenge to maintain it but I believe, if transparency isn’t part of your organizational DNA and mindset right from the beginning, establishing it later costs a lot of energy and resources.