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The modern workplace can be mind-numbingly sterile and deflating. We all have our stories of the soul-sucking corporate job or the non-profit job that failed to meet our expectations. You had that great idea, but it got eaten up whole by the bureaucracy or by the manager who knows “better.” Just do as you are told!

Without a real opportunity to use our creativity, we disengage. Instead of looking to make a contribution, we start looking simply to get by and get paid.

But is there any alternative for this culture of disengagement? Is there any way to bring the spark back to the workplace?

More and more, organizations are looking to holacracy for that spark.

A breakdown in common sense

Last week, I went in a coffee shop up in the mountains. The books were all very carefully curated. The art on the wall was stylish and perfectly placed. The food and coffee all looked excellent.

It had all the trappings of a well-run, happening place.

My partner Sara and I went to get some coffee and a bite. The employee at the cash register (or digital card slider thing, rather) was nice enough, but clearly disinterested.

That didn’t bother me.

They were all out of coffee. We had to wait for them to brew a new pot.

That didn’t really bother me either.

But as we waited, though my muffin was sitting right in front of me in the display, he didn’t grab it for me. Sara asked for her scone and he gave her a confused look and turned away. That wasn’t his job. We watched as he went about pacing around the cafe doing nothing in particular. And no one seemed to actually be brewing that new pot of coffee.

Sara asked again and he relented. He took out a huge to-go box, about 4 times the size of the scone, placed the scone in and handed it to her. It was a huge scone and he gave her about a thimble’s worth of jam. He then took another huge box, put my small muffin in it.

The whole thing was comically uncoordinated and lacking basic common sense.

It seemed like everyone was waiting around for someone else to do the thing that everyone knew needed to be done. With no manager in sight to call the shots, no one felt willing or able to step up.

Obviously, in the grand scheme of things, this doesn’t matter at all. We survived. But the story captures so much of what’s wrong with many workplaces.

The employee was doing what he was told to do. Nothing more, nothing less. He was implementing the system as designed. He was asking himself “How can I do my job as cashier adequately?”

He wasn’t asking “How can I most support the effectiveness of the coffee shop as a whole?” He wasn’t asking “How can this system be more effective?”

A new possibility

What if instead workplaces asked employees to sense problems and then use their creativity and judgment to solve those problems? What if everyone had autonomy to serve the purpose of the organization how they saw fit, within their respective roles?

This, in a nutshell, is holacracy.

The soul-sucking modern workplace

In today’s workplace, there is a protocol. There are rules. As an employee, you are expected to stick to the script. You operate the system as it was designed.

In today’s workplace, there’s a hierarchy. If there’s a problem, you go to your manager. If she doesn’t have the answer, she goes to her manager. The “plan” comes from above.

These conditions too often lead to deep frustration and disengagement, especially from those at the “bottom.” Though “low-level” employees often have the most in-depth knowledge on specific issues, they are often treated as if they are mindless peons.

This mode of operation has a few predictable outcomes:

  1. People get promoted up the hierarchy until they reach their level of incompetence
  2. Once promoted to their level of incompetence, people with fancy titles (but relatively little knowledge of a situation) make critical decisions
  3. People with fancy titles are tasked with making dozens of decisions, causing delays
  4. “Low-level” employees get caught implementing solutions they don’t agree with
  5. “Low-level” employees become disengaged and disinterested

Does this sound at all familiar?

Introducing a new social technology: Holacracy

Holacracy is a social technology that has emerged in the last several years as a replacement for the typical hierarchical organizational structure.

Under holacracy, the hierarchy of decision making is eliminated. There are no managers.

Instead, decision making power is distributed throughout the organization as much as possible. Everyone gets to make some decisions. No one gets ultimate authority.

If you are the web designer, you make decisions about the website. You are empowered to make decisions and accountable for the outcomes of those decisions. You are responsible for engaging with the people who will be most affected by that decision. You use their feedback to make your plan better and more complete.

The organization believes that the person closest to an issue is best equipped to solve it. The organization believes people will be more motivated and productive when they have the freedom and autonomy to come up with their own solutions.

Each person acts as a sensor – deeply understanding and “owning” specific issues within the organization and finding creative responses to them.

Under this model, instead of going through massive company-wide reorganization, every part of the organization is constantly evolving itself. Orders don’t come from the “top.” Rather, each individual person and each individual component of the organization is sensing and adapting to problems itself, autonomously.

Isn’t this chaos?

How do all the various people coordinate themselves under holacracy? How does the organization ensure a coherent strategy? Does it devolve into madness without a “boss”?

Holacracy in fact does have ways to ensure coordination. First, the organization adopts a constitution with key rules that everyone must follow. So while the web developer, for example, has quite a bit of leeway to modify the website, there are certain foundational parameters she must work within.

Further, each employee is embedded in circles, which have their own governance structures. So the web developer might be embedded in the marketing and technology circles. These circles meet regularly. In these meetings, everyone in that particular circle explores how they might, as a unit, adapt and evolve.

And for each circle, there are roles designated for communicating with other circles. There are specific processes to ensure that all the circles understand one another and are moving in ways that build off one another.

But this doesn’t really work, right?

Does holacracy actually work?

Honestly, the jury’s still out.

Holacracy has many critics. Zappo’s, for example, has now become infamous for its implementation of holacracy. Many people cite that 29% of Zappo’s employees have left since the change, many taking a buy-out option. While some employees feel liberated and empowered, others feel confused and lost.

Many are quick to point out the difficulty in implementing holacracy. It is so foreign and novel that you spend all your time simply trying to understand it. Suddenly, there’s no time left for your actual business.

But I think there are more compelling questions to ask ourselves than simply if it’s working right now.

Do our current organizations really “work”? Does yours?

Are people having a hard time adopting holacracy because the model itself is unrealistic? Or is it because we are never actually been expected to solve problems ourselves? Can we begin building capacity that allows holacracies to work better?

Perhaps most importantly, what potential and possibility do we dismiss when we don’t allow people to make decisions on the issues that they are closest to? What great opportunity has your organization missed out on because it’s not asking everyone to be their best?

The workplace of the future

In my mind, organizations have an ethical duty to engage and inspire their employees, to set them free to do their best work.

But more than that, more and more, organizations simply won’t get by without doing so. Research shows that there are three key factors that lead to better performance in employees: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Millennials demand purpose! The most successful workplaces of the future will need to find a way to keep Millennials engaged.

Traditional hierarchies fail miserably at this. For all its imperfections and unknowns, holacracy is asking an essential questions about our workplaces:

How do we maximize autonomy (and therefore engagement), while also staying focused on an organization’s core purpose? How do we build capacity so that employees can be trusted to dream up and implement strategic, creative solutions on their own?


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Peter Schulte

Peter Schulte is the founder and editor of Kindling. Peter is also Senior Digital Engagement Associate for the Pacific Institute and the UN Global Compact's CEO Water Mandate, connecting businesses to sustainable water practices. Peter holds a B.S. in Conservation and Resource Studies and a B.A. in Comparative Literature from University of California, Berkeley, and an M.B.A. in Sustainable Systems from Pinchot University. He lives in Bellingham, WA, USA with his wife, son, and cat.