Holacracy: Interview with Brian Robertson

Brian Robertson is an experienced entrepreneur, CEO, and organizational pioneer.Forbes and Fast Company credit him for developing Holacracy, a comprehensive management system for governing and running organizations that are fast, agile, and that succeed by pursuing their purpose, free from the tyranny of top-down planning that is instantly out of date. Some of the many champions who have implemented Holacracy include Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, Ev Williams, cofounder of Twitter, Blogger, and Medium, and David Allen, the best-selling author ofGetting Things Done. Brian previously founded a software development firm that won numerous awards for both fast business growth and innovative people practices. He is also the author of the book Holacracy

1. What inspired you to write your book?

I think organizations are the most powerful force on the planet, with massive potential to move humanity forward, and yet they’re facing some really serious challenges in today’s world that are historically unprecedented.  I believe Holacracy is a great tool for responding to some of those challenges and unleashing the power of our organizations for good, and holding it back would just be tragic.  I wanted to help set Holacracy free to do its work in the world and ultimately outgrow me and my organization, its initial stewards.  Writing a book to capture and share the system seemed an important step in that direction.

2. What is the essence of holacracy? How does it differ from hierarchy and flat organizations?

To understand the difference between Holacracy and either conventionally hierarchical or flat organizations, it’s important to understand that hierarchy and structure are not synonymous terms.  While we often think that the hierarchy of a conventional organization IS the structure through which work gets channeled, the real decision-making channels are usually much more complicated, influenced as they are by informal, implicit, and political power arrangements.  Removing the hierarchy (flawed as it may be) without replacing it with something explicit – as many flat organizations do – can lead to a strengthened emergence of these informal power alliances.  This does not help to make the channels for processing work clear, and nor does it empower individuals throughout the company to take charge of their areas and drive change.

Holacracy relies on a set of transparent rules and processes that everyone can participate in, and uses them to distribute clear authority across a set of clear and constantly evolving roles. Individuals filling those roles have a great deal of autonomy, with equally clear boundaries and limits on that autonomy, so there’s little need spend time on consensus-building or consulting a manager.  Holacracy’s structure is explicit and formal – in many ways, Holacracy is more structured than a conventional hierarchy, just differently structured.  At the same time, Holacracy adds a distributed governance process for updating that structure and evolving a team’s roles.  That allows each team to rapidly iterate on its structure and processes, to continuously capture learning and evolve to meet the changing needs of the organization.  So, unlike most traditional and flat organizations, the structure Holacracy brings adds real clarity while staying nimble and aligned with what’s really needed to get work done most effectively.

3. What does leadership look like in a Holacracy?

Holacracy dissolves the division between “leaders” and “followers”.  In a Holacracy-powered organization, there are no more managers in the classic sense – the power that managers previously had is now distributed to various roles and processes within the organization, using Holacracy’s governance process.  When the authority to make decisions is clear and distributed, no one has to tiptoe around an issue to build buy-in, or push to get others to see things the same way they do.  Individuals are free to use their best judgment and take action, as the appointed leader of their roles. If others have concerns about that leadership impacting their ability to lead their own roles, they can use Holacracy’s governance process to address any tensions and define team norms and constraints, thus keeping the team aligned and operating smoothly together.  Holacracy enables a company full of leaders acting in concert with other leaders, through a clear distribution of authority and a dynamic team-based governance process.

4. Can you share a case study of how Holacracy worked effectively in a company?

Toronto-based nutrition and fitness industry pioneer Precision Nutrition (PN) has been running Holacracy since early 2012. The company was in a period of rapid growth, having reached 25 people and millions of dollars in sales, and it began to become clear to CEO Phil Caravaggio that his current approach, which he described as “personally trying to do every new task for our entire company” was unsustainable. Caravaggio and his co-founder, John Berardi, turned to Holacracy in the hope of retaining the company’s entrepreneurial spirit while allowing it to scale. And while the adoption has been “tough,” Caravaggio calls it “the best decision I ever made.” PN has continued to grow at a rate of 25-50% per year and was recently named one of Fast Company’s “10 Most Innovative Companies Of 2015 In Fitness”. Now Caravaggio notices a fundamental difference: It can keep going—and growing—without him. “Holacracy has propagated leadership throughout the organization,” he says. As a case in point, he cites the fact that he was able to take a three-week vacation in the middle of the biggest and most profitable product launch in the company’s history—a moment he describes as “the demarcation point between being a collection of heroic individuals, and having a system that is trusted by talented people to do what needs to be done”

5. What is one technique or approach leaders could start applying today to cultivate holacracy in their organization?

Any organization, whether it’s using Holacracy or not, needs clarity on who is owning what and who is accountable for what.  In a conventional organization, most people feel that they are accountable to their managers, when the reality is that there are many others who count on you—your coworkers, your customers, perhaps investors or other stakeholders. Each of the different parties has different specific activities they are counting on you to own and to effectively manage, and clarity about these “accountabilities” is critical to an organization running smoothly. When accountabilities remain implicit and are not discussed, important tasks may be dropped, boundaries may be overstepped, and frustration may ensue.

Holacracy’s style of clarifying accountabilities may be something you can adopt even if you’re not adopting the whole system. If you’re a manager, you can do this with your team, or you can simply do it for yourself, to bring clarity to what is expected of you, and the many hats you are wearing, probably one on top of another. One word of caution: Within the Holacracy system, roles and accountabilities are constantly updated through the governance process. These descriptions are only as useful as they are real, so make sure you keep revisiting and updating them.

6. What books have impacted most in your development as a leader?

There are so many it’s hard to pick just a few.  David Allen’s Getting Things Done was foundational for me; I’m grateful to count him as a supporter of Holacracy now, and he was also kind enough to write the forward to my own book.  Beyond that, I owe aspects of my own development to the works of Linda Berens, Barry Oshry, Peter Senge, Patrick Lencioni, Jim Collins, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Ken Wilber, Murray Rothbard, and Ludwig von Mises, among many others.

How to Enter the Giveaway to Win a Copy of Holacracy (Giving out two books):

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I’ll be choosing the two winners on Monday, September 28th midnight.