Brian Robertson: Holocracy

The best reason to keep a tradition going, as everybody knows, is because it’s been done like that in the past. No point in changing what we know. When politicians shout ‘change!’ what people really hear is ‘tomorrow will very much be like today’.

Safe and comfortable, our brains have no need to click into gear.

Brian Robertson, co-founder of Holocracy (a method of decentralized management and organizational governance), believes that’s worth a re-think, particularly when it comes to management structures. The top-down, traditional hierarchical approach has been the standard model since the industrial revolution (and before), with power being disseminated down the chain, responsibilities compartmentalised and, in effect, eventually creating such a communication chasm between employees and management that having a conversation becomes a rigid process rather than a free exchange of information and ideas.

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Brian suggests that this top-down model has become outdated. It worked brilliantly in the past, hence why it has been adopted so ubiquitously, but with the pace of change rapidly increasing, our management structures need to be much more flexible to deal with the flow of information and ideas coming from outside and within.

‘In the middle of the last century as an executive, how many messages did you get a day? How many demands on your attention? Probably not that many. But today? It’s at least an order of magnitude. And it’s not just the high-powered executive, it’s every knowledge worker in that building’.

In this rapidly changing world, the person at the bottom of the hierarchical structure is just as likely to have that breakthrough idea – or simply a better way of setting up any business process more efficiently – but the structure above them crushes their ability to get their idea heard and carried out by someone with the power to do so.

Holocracy breaks that structure. It involves the devolving of power throughout an organisation, creating a structure that allows information to flow in all directions. It gives real responsibilities and ownership to each and every employee. So, how does it work in practical terms?

In essence, Holcoracy taps into the ideas behind natural evolution in order to create a natural order out of what, on the face of it, looks more chaotic, through small, incremental changes. These changes are based on ‘tensions’ felt by an individual in their own job role. If an individual feels a tension in their role, they bring that tension to a ‘governance meeting’ – occurring every month or so – and pitch their idea to resolve the tension.

All other team members could comment on the pitch and make suggestions, but the basic premise is accepted as true from the outset. The only reason it won’t go through is if the final question ‘Would this change do anybody any harm?’ is answered in the affirmative.

Holocracy doesn’t focus on making operational decisions like how to launch the next product, but is a way of stepping back from working in the organisation to working on the organisation itself. Through these small changes organisations can rapidly become more efficient with employees feeling genuinely empowered to fulfil their role. With Holocracy, there is no major organisational shift all at once.

It is also not a hippy farm in 1970s California, there are real structures in place – it’s just that they are flexible and have the ability to evolve with the changing environment. To really empower an employee and get them to take ownership of their roles, there has to be rules.

For Holocracy, real empowerment requires:

  • Boundaries
  • Structures
  • Rules
  • Clarity
  • Constraints

And, when you look at the above list, it’s clear what it is: a description of the perfect manager. True empowerment comes from having responsibility for the consequences of your work, and having clear boundaries in which that work can be produced. It is also crucial for creativity – because unlimited boundaries leads to a Jackson Pollock painting with no canvas i.e. a mess on the floor.

These rules and guidelines are contained with the ‘Holocracy Constitution’, a handbook for employees to use as guides through this new way of management thinking.

The way the company is structured is closer to the cells in a human body than to the top-down traditional structure. Teams are drawn together by their outcomes, such as everyone involved with marketing is in the ‘Outreach’ group. This team evolves according to its needs over time, adding and shedding members. All employees within the team know their roles, and can suggest new roles and responsibilities where any ‘tension’ creeps in, thereby constantly updating the processes that your company needs to succeed.

With this sort of philosophy, digital adaption would have been a huge amount quicker in some of our biggest companies, which would have given them an enormous competitive edge over their rivals. The fact that change was slow in getting to the top (often taking years) meant opportunities were missed.

This is also where disruptor companies steal a march – they didn’t have to convince their bosses that there was a gap (aka ‘tension’) in the market, they just filled it.

By sublimating his ego to help the business succeed, Brian could give his employees the responsibility, enthusiasm and drive to help the business succeed. They weren’t working for a pay-cheque, they were working for outcomes.

‘People ask me ‘but what is it like giving up control?’ The irony is, I have far more control than I ever did in my CEO days. The difference is not that I have less control, it’s that everyone else has more control. I know exactly what team member is doing and what they are responsible for – and they know the same about me. Clarity is control.’

Workers no longer had to dust off their job descriptions to see what they were supposed to be doing, they were actively contributing to what their role should be. Indeed, ‘job descriptions’ within an holocracy system are not static documents, they are dynamic descriptions that evolve over time based on the needs of the organisation.

In the end, just like the tension felt within an organisation, it came down to a feeling. As Brian put it ‘The way we organised for the past century can’t be the way we organise for the next’.


hugh-torpey-1Hugh Torpey is the Content Manager at the IMI. Hugh’s article is based on a talk given at the IMI by Brian Robertson at the National Management Conference 2017. Brian Robertson is an experienced entrepreneur, organisational pioneer, and author of the book Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World