A reflection of the challenges.
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 second 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 On roles
Changing and defining roles and purposes of roles is a hassle. It often felt like a burden on top of everything else. It is probably up to every organization to decide, how detailed you would want to define roles. The time invested to draft roles obviously depends on the level of details you need in the roles. All of this sounds great in theory. With more and more people come more and more roles. One of the challenging things is, how do you make sure that the team knows, who fills which role? And how do you make this transparent? And how do you update the team on constant role changes? Having smart tech tools in place to display might be one solution. I still do wonder how to tackle this problem sufficiently. Even though you might have a lot of freedom and chance to fill more than one role, for me it comes back to the same thing of comfort and security: If roles are constantly changing, people are confused at some point. Nobody has the brain capacity to relate more than four roles with a human being. Therefore, the ideas and concepts are great, yet, here I see a lack of a pragmatic connection to real work life and the nature of humans.
2 It felt too technical and inhuman.
After some time of working within the system, the first critics came up. One of the things which were brought up quite regularly was the need for having space or platform for “sorting out real tensions” between people. It seemed like there was no space dedicated to frustrations that built up. It might have been because we “used the system” wrong, yet, maybe it was just a flaw in the system. Personally, I often felt like working within a cold complex system of rules which I will never be able to fully comprehend if I don’t spend a week only reading books on Holacracy. Holacracy often felt like it turns human relationships into mechanical transactions. It tries to neglect human emotions. By making relationships transparent and putting down what and who gets what from whom, you introduce a great level of transparency. Yet even if processes are transparent, humans still run on emotions. And those emotions are the same in a hierarchical or flat organization.
3 People have emotions
For me, it felt, that Holacracy tries to define every single interaction between people. What it doesn’t tell us in the Holacracy constitution, is the fact, that you have people coming from all walks of life bringing in a lot of different experiences, expectations, and ways how to talk, relate and work with each other. People are coming from very different work cultures and are hardly ever used to the amount of freedom and responsibility Holacracy demands. It also doesn’t tell you that humans have emotions and react to things. Since this isn’t part of the constitution, an engineer who will implement the system, will try to solve every problem the team has with Holacracy, with going back to fix the process but not trying to dig a bit deeper and tries to understand, that why things don’t work isn’t because of a process. I’m convinced a lot of things don’t work because humans have emotions programmed into their DNA and machines don’t.
4 Structure and rigor
Having a clear structure for everything is good and bad at the same time. It can be a safety net or a cage. Sometimes, deviating from the path is what humans need to do. That requires strong leadership. If the one who is looked at when things get difficult avoids strong leading moves, a structure can feel ridiculous. I had more than one moment where I felt like a little robot because we didn’t act smart but just followed “the rules.”
5 Complexity, rules, and framework
When you see the constitution, I always had the immediate reaction to close the tab right again or just find something different to read. When we adopted it in 2015, the constitution back then was even more expansive than today’s version. Two of the founders educated themselves and went ahead with the implementation process of it. That was good for the beginning. Soon we realized, every single new person who walks into the team needs a proper onboarding on it. So we tried our best. Yet, it hasn’t been enough. What it needs for people coming into a Holacracy organization is an internal mindset reset and update. This takes time, and time is the scarcest resource in a startup as we know. Coming to point 6, it needs a lot of time.
6 It is time-consuming
Working in a startup means, you are pushing the limit. Our team pushed the limits and worked on a really innovative product. It was challenging and exciting.
We were busy. Because you are building something completely new while creating a company. We had launch after launch. We really pushed hard and achieved a lot. So, why is that important to mention? It means we all had a time-intensive crazy job already. We loaded a lot on our shoulders. And because we are young, ambitious people, we thought we just work with the latest innovation in the organization space. Most of us worked too much. Holacracy felt like an extra job to take care of for me personally. At some point, it felt more like a burden than an empowering system. I think this was also the point when my curiosity and interest turned into a rather juicy criticism and led me to fundamentally reflect and question the system.