Good Holacracy, Bad Holacracy [Nixon]

I’m enjoying following Tom Nixon on Medium. While I don’t always agree with his point of view, of with the sometimes-controversial way that he chooses to present it, his writing, and further conversations that sometimes ensue, are always a learning opportunity.

Good Holacracy, Bad Holacracy is no different.

In this piece, Tom unpacks his general criticism of Holacracy into a more nuanced point of view that addresses both the good and the bad. Having personally gone through a similar process myself, I’ve landed in a similar position.

Tom describes “Bad Holacracy” as:

when the whole effort to adopt it becomes about Holacracy. Leaders are sold on the Holacracy concept and then a project begins to ‘install’ it… In the worst cases it’s used forcefully, even when the people doing the work don’t believe it will help them. The people are considered the problem. They’re labeled ‘change resistors.’ … In Bad Holacracy, the rules are tightly held… Bad Holacracy seems to value its own processes and rules above all else, and it’s all or nothing… If adherence to Holacracy dogma is valued more highly than doing great work, living the values, and contributing to the vision, you’ve got problems.

And “Good Holacracy” as:

Good Holacracy always works in context. That means solving real issues that are getting in the way of the work and overall progress. It offers process and structure, not to constrain or for its own sake, but to open up creativity and autonomy for people doing the work.

The focus isn’t on selling people on Holacracy and coaching them to use it, but on the underlying principle of self-management. Above all, Good Holacracy doesn’t start with process… The most important thing is the inner work for people collaborating together to better understand themselves and connect to each other. To become clearer in our intentions. To uncover and work through the unconscious biases and stories from our past which shape our behaviour yet do not always serve us… If you add some strategies for org process and structure to an inner journey like this, the possibilities for people to work together to realise worthwhile ideas in the world are enormous.

As a nice bonus, Tom also shares his self-management principles (the Three A’s):

  • Autonomy (for people to take the initiative and make decisions)
  • Accountability (to keep on top of how commitments are being met)
  • Alignment (to ensure everything’s contributing towards an overall vision)

At a high level, Tom touches on two core principles/failure modes in adopting new ways for people to work together (aka “organizational operating systems”). You can easily replace Holacracy with Team, Agile, Lean, TQM or your own pet system:

  1. Treating the system as dogma — viewing the practices as rules that must be followed, rather than suggestions that should be considered and adapted to the organization’s unique context.
  2. Wrong motivation — trying to adopt the practices in order to accomplish some external business outcome (faster time-to-market, higher quality, etc.) rather than in order to better reflect our current or desired shared core assumptions about people and the way they work together.

These two failure modes will lead to the “theater phenomena” (practices adopted with no/marginal benefit) at best or to a complete “organ rejection” at worst.

Adopting a new way of working together has to start with articulating a set of assumptions about people and the way they can work together. If those assumptions are significantly different than the ones that are widely accepted in the organization, the adoption effort must be accompanied by work that exposes those assumptions and helps people grow and develop to be able to adopt those core assumptions. The specific practices that reflect these beliefs need to be viewed as means to an end, and adjusted to the unique context and the progress that the organization has made on that journey.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is a Franz de Waal quote which seems highly relevant to the topic of this post:

The enemy of science is not religion. Religion comes in endless shapes and forms… The true enemy is the substitution of thought, reflection, and curiosity with dogma.

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Good Holacracy, Bad Holacracy [Nixon]

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