Medium drops Holacracy: how we dealt with their challenges at Springest in the past 3 years

Ruben Timmerman
Mar 7, 2016 · 5 min read

Last week, Andy Doyle from Medium announced they won’t use Holacracy anymore to run their company. It’s great that such a visible company was so open about both adopting and dropping it. Andy cited 3 specific reasons for dropping it, I’d like to reflect on them based on my own experience with Holacracy at Springest in the past 3 years. A few caveats to start off with:

  • I haven’t talked with anyone at Medium about this (would love to!)
  • Medium has raised $82M so far from very high profile VCs, so they might be under different pressure than other companies to care about what (growth!) vs. how (consciousness!).
  • I don’t know how big their team is and how fast it’s growing, they merely mention “scaling” and their About pages don’t show. It doesn’t look like they’re with more than ~50 people though.
  • Holacracy’s system has evolved to make it easy to evolve, so “our Holacracy” will not resemble Medium’s. For example, OKRs are how we define strategy and we have a very explicit policy for how projects must be defined, beyond what Holacracy offers out of the box. We also added some specific accountabilities for Lead Links like doing and documenting one on ones with each circle member.
    Compare this with different Linux distributions that might have a totally different focus.
  • It’s not about Holacracy, it’s about discovering better ways of running organisations. In that sense, I agree that you should move beyond it once you discover something better. We choose to do that with Holacracy as the underlying operating system, and I think we can keep using that for quite a while since it’s so easily adjustable.
  • Andy writes they’re going “beyond” Holacracy and I first included that in my title. But after rereading I went for calling it “dropping” anyway, see below why.

So, on with the three reasons mentioned:

1. Can’t synchronize efforts at scale

Our experience was that it was difficult to coordinate efforts at scale. […] for larger initiatives, which require coordination across functions, it can be time-consuming and divisive to gain alignment.

I recognize this, because sometimes it feels hard to do “cross circle” projects. Often we don’t point at our structure, or at Holacracy, for the problem. We look at how to improve communication, via strategy or metrics or clearer project outcomes or explicit accountabilities. Or, just by having an extra meeting to coordinate an effort. Nothing wrong with that!

Also, our Governance meetings happen weekly, allowing for even more iterations in our organisational structure. Whole circles are formed, deleted and recreated again in different ways within months.

We also adopted OKRs as the way we formulate strategy. We found most of how OKRs are usually done doesn’t conflict with Holacracy, although so far we mostly define them on circle and not role level.

Assumption: Medium never reached this level of Holacracy learning and consciousness (i.e. people being able to feel this tension and solve it within Holacracy) because of a higher hiring pace or lower learning investment.

2. It’s too hard to codify while growing fast

…every role requires a set of responsibilities. While this provides helpful transparency, it takes time and discussion. More importantly, we found that the act of codifying responsibilities in explicit detail hindered a proactive attitude and sense of communal ownership.

I also recognize this, especially when new people enter the company, or when big initiatives are run by people with less Holacracy experience. If change is not cheap (see above…), and if people are not comfortable with the mechanism of individual action and processing tensions based on reality, then indeed pro-activeness and ownership can suffer.

Adding new accountabilities or entire roles or circles based on a sense of ownership isn’t hard to do. “Discussing” this like Andy says, is not something you even do in Holacracy: its Governance process makes sure proposals are processed quickly if the Facilitator is good at her job. Also, it’s up to the proposer, the person who feels the reality based tension, to define how explicit a responsibility is defined. Often, they’re deliberately open for the role holder’s interpretation.

Assumption: Training / coaching / learning / onboarding might be the bottleneck for Medium. Also, hiring “bosses” like Andy writes, surely creates problems because they might be used to create ad-hoc jobs in a top down fashion, which indeed is faster than processing the tension by doing it and codifying it later. But this comes at the price of implicit vagueness later, so scaling seems easier but you need more “managers” to keep everything in check.

3. Recruiting is too hard because the media is too sensational!

Holacracy has become fraught with misconceptions that make it hard to separate the actual system from the imagined one. In recruiting, this became a problem — particularly among more experienced candidates, who worried that they were being hired as “bosses” in a boss-less company.

The other points feel very valid, but this one baffles me. Suddenly, they’re hiring “bosses” and they care about mainstream media?

In The Netherlands, 80% of the press we get is positive or at least inquisitive. Of course there are doubts and misconceptions, and they annoy us and sometimes put off potential hires. But we’re also winning awards and get many applications because of Holacracy. And we value those more than the few we lose: those people probably didn’t make up their own mind based on data, so they wouldn’t fit here anyway.

Assumption: I guess they couldn’t stand the heat anymore, so they got out of the kitchen :) Changes are always met with skepticism and self-management of course isn’t the end all of management, at least not within a few years.

This will take time, and the way Medium and its parent company Obvious were presented it seemed they were the ones ready to take the heat and the lead. Maybe they still are, but they just don’t want to deal with Holacracy as a term, which makes sense. I guess a lot of companies adopting something like Lean or Six Sigma or at some point claim their own flavor.

Bonus: We need bosses to scale

And we have bosses — people who have the experience of scaling companies, leading through hard challenges, and developing teams.

That sounds a bit like going back to the old days. I hoped Medium would remain self-managed, but this sounds like only certain people, with experience, can develop teams and be bosses.

In my perception, Lead Links still do about 20% of what old school bosses did. The other 80% is divided between the Rep Link, the system itself, and other role holders. Which can very well be people that used to be a boss, but now have explicit roles explaining their boss-like accountabilities. So yeah, you still need leaders in various ways, and you can call them bosses if you want. But if you’re hiring you better make sure those people understand they can’t just do what they’re used to.

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