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Holacracy - organising with dynamic steering, not predict and control

I have just completed a very interesting online course (four 3-hour sessions over two weeks) in Holacracy – an exciting new way of organising. I use the verb ‘organising’ carefully here, as one of the most interesting aspects of Holacracy is the way it embraces continuous change and movement, with careful language and structured processes that embrace and utilise the change that’s inevitably happening.

Holacracy (the word comes from holarchy, not holistic or holon) is described as a ‘new operating system’ of organisations. It’s been pioneered by Brian Robertson and his colleagues Holacracy One (www.holacracy.org), and is a total approach to how people can organise in pursuit of a purpose. This includes moving away from both the shareholder AND stakeholder approaches towards a system of interlinking circles (of people) using some very specific practices to find workable ways forward that everyone in the circle can agree with – at least for now.

There are specific structures for Governance meetings (which decide on roles and accountabilities within the circle) and Tactical meetings (reaching next concrete steps on specific topics). The involve structured ’rounds’ of input, with very specific rules about what is allowed in each round, in a way that put me in mind of reflecting team practice in general and our own SF Reflecting Team structure in particular. Robertson is very clear about the desirability of adopting the whole practice – “If you do the whole thing, you’ll get a transformed organsiation. If you use, say, a meeting format on its own, then you’ll just get a better meeting.”

For me, one of the most exciting elements of Holacracy is the very clear move away from practices based on ‘Predict and Control’ (as Holacracy says), towards practices based on ‘Dynamic Steering’. Many common management practices are based on predict and control – action plans, strategies to be delivered, budgets… all trying to evaluate all the risks and uncertainties and find the one true path right now (and by the way if you get it wrong, you’re a bad person). Using the metaphor of riding a bicycle, Robertson points out that to keep the bike steady and moving requires continual dynamic input – it’s no use trying to figure out how to turn the handlebars in three hours time! In practice, this plays out as a tight focus on finding next concrete actions, things that are workable NOW. Every decision can be revisited at any time, and decisions should be held off until the last practical moment. All of this allows the inevitably changing landscape to inform, and keep informing, the organising in progress. Also, these actions have no do-by dates! There are prioritisation methods, but who knows if an action that seemed fine this morning may not appear like madness by the end of the day?

Some of this last paragraph will have a familar feel to SF practitioners. It’s been very interesting for me to see quite how far the Holacracy people take this idea – which is a long way! For example, rather than having a date-driven Early Bird discount system for their workshops, they offer discounts on the first n places to be booked. Our work with Bruce Woodings on strategic direction as opposed to strategic goals also has some parallels to this (see my earlier blog post at http://tinyurl.com/y8kgzsm for a link to an article about that). So many of the practices that SF calls into question, such as diagnosis and even explanation, have roots in a desire to predict and control. It’s fascinating to see another take on an antidote to this.

Holacracy’s website contains some good free resources (http://www.holacracy.org/about-holacracy), they run free 1-hour webinars and also offer very good online and experiential workshops both as introductions and (in 5-day intensive form) for licensed practitioners). Well worth checking out.

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Comment by Hans-Peter Korn on April 2, 2010 at 18:17
Hi Mark, this is a really very interesting approach! For me there are some aspects which reminds me on "sociocracy" and many others (e.g. the "daily standup meetings" and the "purpose driven process") are very similar to the "agile management".
So, I am hopeful that we will learn step by step how to deal with complexity in organisations...

Cheers, Hans-Peter

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