8 challenges to overcome when adopting Holacracy

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then everybody is suddenly very productive.

A year and a half ago I first heard about Holacracy: “GTD for your organization”, or so I thought. We started adopting it at my company Springest, and have been learning the hard way ever since. Now that it’s becoming more popular, partly because of Zappos adopting it and the first books coming to market, I’d like to summarize some challenges we encountered. Actually, I thought Holacracy’s popularity would rise much faster. But it didn’t, and I think I know why…

(Spoiler: it can be great, it will be misunderstood and it is quite hard!).

I’ll mention a challenge and for each the approach we are taking to overcome it. We accept the fact that we’ll learn along the way and that trying out stuff and failing every now and then is the only way to go.

1. Holacracy doesn’t tell you how to run your organization

Our approach: embrace the uncertainty. Honestly, we just try our best to use the process to create clarity around all the things we’re doing or want to be doing. We have a seasoned Holacracy coach to help us with this, and often reiterate to everyone how it’s OK to feel a bit lost when you have a tension but don’t know the solution yet.

2. Holacracy tells you exactly how to run your organization

Our approach: learn the rules! This might seem obvious, but we definitely should’ve placed more emphasis on this. Not just for our lead links or facilitators, but for everyone. You have to understand the rules, or you can’t play the game. And the goal of the game is to speed up evolution so you can run the organization effectively.

3. If it looks like a manager, smells like a manager…

Our approach: coach each other a lot. Especially for lead links, who might have been “managers” before Holacracy, this requires a lot of learning and peer-feedback. Maybe the biggest and hardest part of their job is to teach other circle members (as Holacracy calls your team mates) to not look up to them as the “boss”. We definitely haven’t solved this one, and actually writing this posts is one of my tries to address this issue (hi guys! ;)).

4. When the going gets tough, you have to suck it up

Our approach: try out different methods for synchronizing efforts. Currently, we’re trying to make our strategies more concrete, and also make it clear and accepted that Lead Links can change priorities of the circle, and thereby indirectly for other circle members’ projects. You don’t want to do this all the time, because people “in the trenches” tend to know best what’s important to fulfill their roles. On the other hand, we’ve learned that setting priorities also requires a lot of perspective and judgment about the leverage something has.

5. You can’t out-evolve the grapevine

Our approach: practice what you preach. Try to address people by stating your and their role (“I want to ask you in your role of X, to do this for me in my role as Y), and explaining the process for addressing other roles. For instance, it’s fine to address a role directly even though they’re not in your circle. And if someone tells you someone should be doing something, we try to remind them to check the accountabilities to see if they can actually have that expectation.

6. Learn the game by reading the rules, or by practicing (and losing!)

Our approach: we should probably have placed more emphasis on learning the rules, and we’re correcting that now by doing more training. 9 of our colleagues went to HolacracyOne’s Taster Workshop, and one of us took the 5 day Practicioner Certification Training. We also created a role “Holacracy Ninja” in our “Smooth Operations” circle that has some Learning & Development accountabilities, to spread knowledge about Holacracy from within other circles and not just from the “old management’ or the founder or external coach.

7. Classical Creationism vs. Holacratic Evolution

Our approach: First, we remind ourselves to not be creationists. Of course, using that word already conjures how we think about it. However, we sometimes allow ourselves to dream up new structures so we can explore each other’s thoughts about it. We do try to focus on our tensions, so instead of talking only about the solution (“this team should work like this, with these people doing this and that”), we talk a lot about the tension (“what exactly isn’t going well and why?). This forces us to not overdesign and not fix things that aren’t broken.

8. Keeping the faith

Our approach: we first said Holacracy was an experiment, and it was. However, when you’re further in the process it’s important to stress that the intention is to keep using it forever. There’s no way of doing it half-assed. If you call it an experiment, make sure you set an end date and change the mindset after that. The extra training we did (after 1,5 years of working with Holacracy!) and speeding up our governance seem to be helping in gaining trust.

I hope these challenges give you a feel for what it’s really like to run your organization on the Holacracy operating system. It’s been a very interesting journey for us, and we’ve definitely not finished yet! We intend to keep sharing our learnings, so if this article raises new questions for you, feel free to leave a comment here. I am happy to elaborate!

Written by

Founder @Springest. More me at https://ruben.org

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