Holacracy is for grown-ups

Written by Joris Engbers on 6th April 2016

For over a year, since Spindle started thinking about Holacracy, I have been explaining Holacracy to colleagues, friends and family to different degrees of success. It is easy to get lost in explaining roles, circles, and distributed authority, but in my experience, people can hardly make sense of it before understanding the more fundamental premise: Holacracy is for grown-ups.

What would you do?

Just to give you an idea of what I mean, this is a conversation I have on a regular basis:

Interested person: So, tell me about roles in Holacracy.
Me: As a role-fulfiller, you have the authority to do anything you think serves to express the purpose of the role.
Interested person: Ha! But then how do you prevent people from buying Playstations and slacking off on the job?
Me: Uuuh, is that what you would do?

Suppose me and the interested person were neighbors, and we would have this equivalent conversation:

Neighbor: Hey, can I borrow your car?
Me: Of course not, how would I prevent you from going on a joyride, driving my car into a bridge and letting it burn?
Neighbor: Uuuh, is that what you would do?

No one says things like that to other adults in normal life. We trust people to act reasonably in most situations and accept the risk that something might go wrong, but pleasant people don’t assume bad intentions behind the actions of others. In other words, we expect other people to behave like – more or less – responsible adults. That’s why a free society can give people over 18 an amazing amount of freedom to make their own decisions on virtually anything.

Acting like parents and children

And then somehow, as soon as we enter an organization, we find it perfectly reasonable that the default amount of authority we give to each other is exactly zero. You might find yourself having to ask for permission to buy the paper for the printer that you really need right now. Is anyone afraid that you’ll buy enough paper to bankrupt the company? Is it really necessary that someone has the job of giving you permission to do the most basic sensible thing that is needed for you and the organization to function?

The premise of any traditional organization is that terrible things will happen if you don’t have people setting up boundaries for other people. In other words, people who act as parents and people who are treated as children. We don’t think that is how things work.

No permission needed

In Holacracy, there are no parents and no children. The system operates on the premise that everyone in it is an adult that can make sensible decisions without having to ask for permission. There might be a small risk involved, but as we all know, all the managers in the world are also not always able to prevent terrible things from happening. Yes, I’m also looking at you Volkswagen.

At least, we have the enormous benefit that every great idea from anyone in the organization can be acted upon immediately. We will have tried ten new things and succeeded only once, before any traditional organization has had the third meeting about the first idea.

You may think we are wrong in trusting adults to act as grown-ups, but now you know how we came to do the things we do the way we do them. That understanding will help to make sense of all the more technical aspects of Holacracy.

Do you like to be treated as a grown-up? We are always looking for colleagues.

Your thoughts

Devhouse Spindle