Managercide. Are you ready for Holacracy?

We're living in the Age of Information & sharing your own ideas has never been so easy. In IT we're getting constantly flooded with new libraries, frameworks, platforms, methods, ... One of the most recent additions to the never-ending stack of novelties is named Holacracy and ... it's certainly worth mentioning.

Holacracy has been born to enable scaling up for well-performing, small, start-up-alike organizations, so they can grow up without giving up their agility, direct people cooperation & empowerment. Following Agile Manifesto or using one of well-established Agile methods (like Scrum) doesn't seem sufficient to fulfil this need - scaling them has always been an issue (even now, when Agile is sort of commodity). Many claim to know the root cause of the problem: it's the traditional management (and managers themselves) who are the key obstacle to deal with in a quest to improve the effectiveness of software development.

What's Holacracy?

Frankly speaking, when I had started my career, I knew that some roles / skills will get redundant sooner or later (it's the way IT works), but I didn't imagine it might be managers :)

Anyway, that's what Holocracy aims to do - it's an organizational system (not only for IT-related companies) that replaces traditional human-based hierarchy of managers of various levels with hierarchy of so-called holons: circles of individuals playing set roles who cooperate within set (& transparent) processes, with clear roles & authorities.

Yes, it's pre-designed processes (not people!) that drive the way things are getting done. Duties & privileges are assigned to roles (more process roles than organization roles!), people fix their impediments & constraints (aka "tensions") during well structured, formal tactical & governance meetings. Issues / decisions that are above the responsibility / accountability threshold for holon will be passed to the holon of higher level (circles may contain other circles) via so-called links.

How does it help? Aren't strict processes the limitation in day-to-day operations? Well, they are not supposed to be - people are more autonomous in shaping & adjusting the processes (there's a very precise decisive framework to do that - not based on any single person authority), processes make it very clear who's supposed to do what & countless approvals / checks / buy-ins are not taking place.

If it still looks unclear (I believe it does, hehe) or like a total hippie mumbo-jumbo (I believe it may ...), there are many on-line resources available:

Or you can learn more about it (and Holocracy One - the company behind it that's eating its own dog food :D) in this book (here's my review):

The case of Zappos

Holacracy has gained some public interest due to widely known & commented case of Zappos, US-based on-line retailer that has fully adopted Holacracy & isn't afraid to share their story:

The idea of adopting Holocracy at Zappos (well described in the book mentioned above) came from its CEO - Tony Hsieh, a person cleared fascinated with this concept.

Why I've found it interesting?

I realize how crazy this whole idea looks. It really does, but there are few interesting advantages that shouldn't be neglected easily:

  1. Holacracy is focused on putting transparency (clear rules that can be changed in a clear way) over direct control paradigm (AKA predict, control & prevent deviation)
  2. it's usually people who become bottlenecks, pretty frequently without much sense & adding value; Holacracy answers with hierarchy without bosses & feudal-alike subordination relations - less politics, ass-covering, siloing knowledge, etc.
  3. Holacracy has been designed to scale (even if it feels like scaling from zero-level is preferred)
  4. No managers doesn't mean no hierarchy (flat organization) at all - hierarchy of holons provides different perspectives on different levels

Obviously, there are some challenges that make me shiver (and may easily outweigh the benefits):

  1. without hierarchy & typical career path, how does compensation / career progression look alike?
  2. governance process looks really fragile -> it seems that lack of consensus may easily paralyze the ability to change: isn't the faith in people reaching consensus & steering towards greater, shared good too naive?
  3. formal processes & clear role responsibilities may work in case of small companies / simple processes, but what about larger, multi-site, well established companies? Even basic holocracy rules (the constitution - http://www.holacracy.org/constitution) seem hard to grasp when written down precisely
  4. self-governing, shared vision, self-starting, great teamplay - all those sounds absolutely great, but are these for everyone? What about people who prefer to be driven? Who are great performers, but may lack their own vision? Or what about ones who have vision, charisma, passion & direct-type personality (Steve Jobs-alike)?
  5. is Holacracy-powered organization able to react & adapt in a sufficiently fast & agile way? It's a lesson from ancient Greece & Rome -> these cultures have practices direct & indirect democracy, but in the time of crisis, dictator was being picked up by consuls (in Rome) to take over

Holacracy seems like a very exciting experiment - in my case, I'll keep looking how it goes (at Zappos, but not only), but I'm far from expecting a wide adoption in nearest future.