No managers: what Holacracy is like at Blinkist

How can an organization run on a flatter, more flexible model? I went to Berlin to investigate how this startup does it

“I love meetings”

That’s not a sentence I am used to hearing. And my visit to Blinkist, a Berlin-based startup, was full of sentences of the type, a kind that no one usually hears when talking about work.

Sentences such as “I have a lot of freedom” and “Meetings are super well organized” are usually said in a deeply ironic voice. Not there.

Blinkist’s 40 employees has been experimenting with Holacracy since 2014. Instead of a rigid hierarchical structure, the aim is to build a resilient organization where everyone feels entitled to take initiatives, a company that can adapt quickly to change because its employees are free and deeply motivated by their work.

Holacracy is a buzzword of the era. Companies such as Zappos or Medium switched to it (I recommand reading this post describing how Medium moved away from Holacracy).

Deeply curious about these organizations stressing on the fulfillment of their members, I went investigating in Blinkist’s industrial office in Berlin, meeting Therese (PR), Emily (Customer Support) and Sarah (Content Marketing) with the Mangrove crew over beer and electro music.

Why do companies switch to Holacracy? Can we make work great again? Beyond the hype, here are 4 inspiring things I learnt at Blinkist.

1. Better meetings

“In my experience before Blinkist, you sit in a meeting, nobody really knows who’s the leader, nobody knows what to do and nobody has an agenda… Whoever talks the loudest spends the most time talking and you walk out and you realize you’ve been sitting there for an hour and you come out with nothing. Here, every meeting has a clear goal.” (Therese)

At Blinkist, meetings are few, and they don’t last long. ‘Tactical meetings’ tackle day-to-day issues, ‘governance meetings’ are to define the next big projects and peoples’ roles. Tacticals take 15 to 30mns at the most, governances can take everything from 5 minutes to 2 hours, depending on how much there is to discuss. I really like this idea of creating “types” of meetings, each with a clear timeframe and structure.

2. No managers

At Blinkist, there are still leaders (the 3 cofounders) that give the overall vision, and each circle has a circle lead, but there is no managers. People feel they can take initiative much more easily, and are — supposedly — more motivated.

“It allows you to pivot, be very agile” (Therese)

Therese and Emily told us the story of how they started making audio summaries: Blinkist customers had been asking for the audio version of Blinkist summaries for a long time but the startup had always been postponing creating such a feature. After the move to Holacracy, a few employees took up the challenge and started recording audio summaries in just a week. The release was a success and it is now one of the service most appreciated features.

Thanks to Holacracy, you can now listen to the summary of the Sapiens, A Short History of Humankind if you want (highly recommended)

With great freedom comes great responsability: to replace managers, Blinkist has a lot of processes to make sure everyone coordinates and work towards the same goal.

Collective reporting instead of one-to-one reporting, or the use of reminders instead of managers for enforcing deadlines is an interesting path to explore.

3. No fixed job titles

“My roles at the moment are customer service (email, social media, live chat), content marketing (magazine), CRM (writing to our customers and “spamming” our not yet customers)” (Emily)

People evolve, they learn, and want to do different things. To allow for the maximum personal freedom, constant learning and individual growth, Holacracy replaces job titles with “roles”, much more subject to change. Everyone has one (or more than one) role, and they don’t have to be closely related. Recognizing that people can have different talents is a great way for everyone to feel more fulfilled, and more involved.

4. Adaptable structures

One of the roles in the Sales Circle is B2B Sales

Traditional companies’ departments tend to become silos that fail to communicate effectively and adapt to change. This is why Blinkist tried to replace traditional companies’ ‘departments’ with ‘circles’, more reactive than departments because they define and regularly update their own purpose and the way they will work towards their goal (by choosing the roles they need).

No managers, constant job evolution, adaptable structures and meetings that feel good: Holacracy seems to have it all. Whether or not it is the future of organizations, it’s worth paying close attention to its developments.

Have you experimented such a change in your organization? Want to? Please share your experience in the comments. Thank you for reading! If you liked it, go ahead and press the heart button or share it with your friends on Twitter!