Freedom and Growth through Holacracy
People often talk about the organizational benefits of Holacracy.
I’ve heard a lot about how it creates an evolutionary mechanism within the organization that allows the organization to respond to change faster. I want to share a different story, about the personal benefit of Holacracy. That is, how it feels to work in an organization powered by Holacracy, and how working for HolacracyOne has impacted me.
So, to begin: Hi, I’m Jonathan, and currently work primarily in a software development role at HolacracyOne.
Prior to working at HolacracyOne, I worked for a number of small startups, often as a contractor. I love freelance contract work because it allows me to be selective about the people and projects I work with.
However, in almost all of my small startup experience, there’s always been an energy of domination and control running in the background. I enjoy both building products and working with people, but I don’t like the feeling that I’m an “order-taker” whose function is to take specifications and turn them into code.
I think this is one of the hidden sadnesses in software development: While we may be lauded as exceptionally valuable, because our craft requires specialized, hard-to-attain skills and knowledge, we often end up being treated as different. It’s not infrequent for (poor) managers to treat software developers with a spec-goes-in, code-comes-out attitude.
I want to acknowledge that there are healthy engineering organizations. The experiences I’m describing come from my time working for small, fast-growth startups where a healthy engineering culture hasn’t developed.
At HolacracyOne, its different.
We have an exceptionally flexible development pipeline, and individuals are encouraged to follow their energy when working on the backlog. My thoughts are always welcomed as valuable contributions in most conversations, much like when I was consulting, and I’ve been able to bring my talents to various areas of the product development roadmap in ways that I couldn’t as a consultant.
Instead of feeling like a cog in a software development machine, I feel like I’m part of a team that is working towards a goal. Most remarkably, there’s no manager cheering us on to create this feeling. There is trust, and it is organic.
The other hidden sorrow that many software engineers experience is a persistent feeling of not being “good enough.” Software development is an incredibly complex field, and there are many ways to solve problems, and some of the problems are damn hard. The challenges of debugging mature software projects, and the almost constant negative feedback when it comes to code reviews (you only hear the bad things, not the good things) can make work feel like a cold, harsh environment that requires a thick skin.
Add to all of that that many software development start-ups don’t facilitate sharing of these challenges, and often reward logic over emotion. The result can be a taxing psychological burden that isn’t comfortably shared with colleagues.
The Holacracy meeting format offers space at the beginning and end of each meeting to share whatever we’re experiencing, whether it’s thought-based or feeling-based. These “check-in” and “closing round” spaces are considered sacred, so there’s no fear of someone cutting you off or telling you your thoughts or feelings are invalid.
This space can be used for anything — professional, tactical, personal, or interpersonal. Since the format allows for personal tensions to be spoken, they often dissolve or can be addressed as result of their unearthing. The result of this regular “clearing” of tensions is a more neutral, positive work space. If you offer valuable feedback on a project during a closing round, it’s often picked up and used by others, but there’s no pressure to use this space for that purpose, either, or to integrate anything that you’ve heard someone say.
This small element of a meeting format holds big potential for personal and cultural impact. For me, it’s contributed to a real sense of being treated like a whole person, rather than code monkey.
Because Holacracy provides a transparent structure through roles and accountabilities, when I take on a new role, it’s clear what is expected of me. Coworkers make requests of me, based on these roles and accountabilities, but it then falls to me to choose what to do, how to do it, and often, in what order. Rather than just agreeing, I need to weigh the value of the request against other valuable requests, and also manage my time, energy, and attention to ensure that I get the most important things done, without burning out.
This challenging dance of expectations and choice has created an opportunity for growth. Because every commitment I accept comes from choice rather than compulsion, there’s no one to blame but myself when I fall short. And even falling short is an opportunity for examination about what went wrong and how it can be improved.
The effects of this growth have extended into my personal world-view, and have helped shape my choices as I define my professional identity within the organization. There’s no set professional growth path for me, or anyone else at HolacracyOne. Just as in life, I need to define my next steps, weighing the tradeoffs and benefits at each choice point along the way. And while this might be scary, I also have tools and frameworks to navigate these decisions. I’ve found myself asking questions like — “What do I need?” and “What is my purpose and how will I fulfill it?”
Freedom, choice, and emotional vulnerability all create conditions for personal growth in my day-to-day work life. When combined, they add up to a feeling that I’m not just a software engineer, I’m a whole person, one who is, like my Holacracy-powered organization, constantly growing and changing.