Can Holacracy Work in Education?

Can holacracy work in education?

After writing in a previous post about what happened when Zappos dismantled its hierarchy for holacracy, I began wondering what would happen if educational institutes took on a similar challenge. Can schools, as traditionally top-down, command-and-control organisations, work with flat structures? Could holacracy work in some schools but not in others?

In the Zappos example, there were definitely some growing pains, but the company leadership (i.e. Tony Hsieh) was adamant that the structure was in line with the culture, and those for whom the new structure didn’t work would weed themselves out. However, as a commercial business, Zappos isn’t beholden to the same sorts of regulations as schools.

Educational organisations require explicit accountability at every level. Still, there are some in education who believe holacracy could breathe new life into the industry bogged down with red tape and legacy thinking. Dinant Roode, Netherlands-based blogger and educator, advocates an entrepreneurial approach to education, with holacracy helping the break down the structures that create barriers to creativity and innovation.

He writes:

“Holacracy enables people to act more like entrepreneurs and self-direct their work instead of reporting to a manager who tells them what to do.”

This idea certainly has merit; however, the culture of many educational environments might present the biggest challenge for implementing a system of distributed power and transparency. While the most creative teachers would likely thrive, others would miss the structure of being told what to do.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges to holacracy is the misconception that it means a lack of leadership. On the contrary, holacracy asks people to take on leadership based on their passion and unique skills, rather than based on titles or assignments. George Romme, professor of entrepreneurship at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, suggests thinking of management within holacracy as an “operating system” where power flows where it is needed.

Romme pointed to a business example wherein a “circle” pulled together avoid a layoff by reorganising itself more efficiently. In the same example he noted:

“A rough schematic drawing of the company’s structure would show a top circle, consisting of the board of directors, above and slightly overlapping a general-management circle…”

In other words, while individuals and smaller circles within the organisation would have the power to manage and organise themselves, there are still some decisions that must be made by a management group with a bird’s-eye-view of the organisation. Individuals are held accountable to each other based on performance within the project circles.

In this way, the opportunity is also the challenge with holacracy. The likelihood is that regardless of the industry — technology or education — holacracy works best in organisations with a culture that fosters creative and adaptive thinking. Ultimately, the only real way to know if Holacracy will work in education is for some brave organisations to become experimental test cases.

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