Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The slow success of Holacracy

I'm so excited about this new idea, I can't wait to give it a try -- after a few friends have tried it and found it okay. This is the usual way of thinking in business. Managers are eager to find solutions to their problems, they'd call a tarot consultant to help in a difficult decision if they are desperate enough,
well, they won't tell you unless you are close friends, they'll show you the spreadsheet full of numbers to support the decision they made based on drawing the four of spades. Managers are cautious at the same time, they don't take risks, they have a bigger ship to navigate, they can't afford a minor mistake to sink it. Holacracy is one of those shiny stars on the sky of management that some of us want to try as a leading star, but it's sooo scary.

The approach may be new, but this scary feeling is sooo old. When the whole agile movement started, and people met Extreme Programming, it was a similarly thrilling experience. XP practices sounded shocking and counter-intuitive. The short iterations of scrum sounded plain impossible. Most agile concepts sounded like conceived by a Philip K Dick kind of hallucinatory science-fiction writer, you couldn't decide if you like the idea or despise it, but you definitely felt it running down your spine.

Then the brave ones tried the least worrisome parts, like writing unit tests. It could be done without your boss seeing it. The brave ones sat together and tried the most stunning ideas, like pair-programming. What? Two programmers working on the same piece of code at the same time? What a waste? I can still remember the first reactions, the endless discussions when I did my best to convince managers. And I remember the first pair-programming session on a Saturday morning, there was no one else in the office but us. Four eye balls stared at the same monitor and we started our secret activity: pair-programming.

Holacracy has some radical components too. It's scariest part is that it goes the opposite direction compared to many other management practices. It's easy to introduce a new method when it says, "exercise more control over X". It makes people busy, it gives them something to do, it makes them feel safe, because they'll have one more knob to turn, they'll have more control over the whole complex system. Holacracy does the opposite, it gives you a framework where you can let go of control.

I'm back in the old days sitting with a manager, painting them a flowery future I can so clearly see. The future is not agile in this case but holacratic, but their reaction is the same. The curious look becomes a confused gaze. I'm drumming on the table. I don't understand why they don't get the point, it's so simple and fabulous. And in certain aspects radical, counter-intuitive, just like writing unit tests or, oh horrors, pair-programming. You need to be patient, this is the mantra I repeat to myself. It takes a decade for a concept or approach to have enough mindshare, mental osmosis is a slow process.

I can't even tell if the flowery future will be Holacracy or something else. The agile movement started with the weird programming practices of XP and the strange ceremonies of scrum. Then joined a few friends, like kanban and the lean movement. It was impossible to foresee how these different methodologies would be combined into one. I bet Holacracy will be an important component of how organizations will be run in the future, but I have no idea about the other components. Until then I am trying to be patient and do my job telling about and exercising the strange practices of Holacracy.


  1. OK, this was an education. I had to look up Holacracy and read about it. I have a hard time (as a manager) deciding how much autonomy people on my team should have, because there are times when it seems the only way to assure something gets done is if I just clearly tell someone, "Do it!" (which I, admittedly have to do very rarely).

    I've also come to the realization that certain kinds of collective or autonomous decision making don't mesh well with a company where there is strong top-down authority. There has to be a certain level of general buy-in from the organization.

    Fascinating subject, though. It touches on the very question of how our society should evolve. How do we make our decisions? How do we allow individuals the right and privilege of self determination? How do we build in checks and balances to prevent high-impact disasters? Questions I ponder often.

  2. I looked it up too and read the table comparing traditional with holographic companies. My first reaction was: Human nature will dictate that politics will take over. You can say everyone has to play by the same rules, but in the end, favoritism and personal connections will enable some workers to bypass them while others are held to an unrealistic standard. I have seen organizations try to make their employees feel more empowered through "committees," "self-organization," "recommendations," but in the end, this was only to make employees feel more empowered when in reality they had none. Maybe this works differently in technology, though, where you can't game results as much. Isn't Google supposed to be a workplace like this?

  3. I think office politics is like slavery and corporal punishment: they all worked at some point of time, then went out of fashion. I like to believe we have less favoritism and corruption in national politics now than 150 years ago.

    Goolge is closer, but not quite there yet. The creator of Holacracy actually gave a few presentations to googlers.