Why you don’t understand Holacracy

Ruben Timmerman
4 min readMar 26, 2016

TL;DR: because you think it’s a solution in itself, while it’s merely a framework for organizations to create them in an efficient and controlled manner.

The headline about Holacracy at HBR.org.

Reading an outsider’s perspective, even from management authorities like Gary Hamel and Michele Zanini on Harvard Business Review, it dawned on me. You don’t understand Holacracy, and other organisational systems, because you fail to recognize them for what they are.

In comparing Holacracy to bureaucracy, it’s neglected that self-organization operating systems (let’s call them SooS, because there can never be enough acronyms!) such as Holacracy and the wealth of current management systems actually live at the same abstraction level. But they are often compared as if any one SooS should replace the many forms of bureaucracy that we have been growing, optimizing and changing over the past 150 or so years.

The reality is that we’re just at the beginning. The processing skills of people getting used to the technology that gives us extreme transparency, the shrinking of the world that makes people want to do other things, robots and software taking over jobs that used to require strict top-down process management, the fact that we’re quite wealthy, healthy and safe, the scandals and crises a fake sense of hierarchy-driven control has given us: they all indicate that now might be time for a change.

I often compare this to the invention of Linux, which was based on the Unix operating system. After its invention, many forms and styles of Linux-based operating systems were created, or forked as it’s called in open source lingo. The future will have to prove whether Holacracy is the Linux to the Unix of systems like Scrum, GTD and Sociocracy, or merely one of many “distributions” for self-organization like Red Hat was the most famous one for Linux. Maybe Holacracy turns out to be the Unix of self-organization. Or the Mac OSX that’s actually based on Unix and is universally loved inspite of it’s “ugly and un-usable” grandfather which was intended for mainframes and other non-personal computers.

Starting with Linus Thorvalds’ Linux, many “forks” of new distributions have been created. We are doing this for self-organization too in the next decades. Source: Kde-files.org

Hamel and Zanini write about experiments being the key to change the way we organize:

Now imagine a large organization running dozens of such experiments concurrently. Some hacks would fail, but the best of the rest would be replicated by units eager to reduce the costs of bureaucratic drag.

And this is exactly the point: you need a framework for running these experiments. A way of coming up with them, of making sure the organization still executes whatever it should, a way to measure progress and impact, and ways to document what works. Holacracy is such a system. So you can look at Zappos’ Holacracy and conclude it’s horrible and it won’t work for your organization (or theirs even) but that’s the same as looking at a Linux distribution made to run supercomputers and conclude “Linux can never be used for any form of personal computing”.

The SooS we have created at my company Springest, with Holacracy, has many other elements. Our culture, the way we hire, the other tools we bolted on there like OKRs, and of course the many software tools we use to Get Things Done. If you’d compare it to Zappos’ SooS I’m sure the most recognizable part are the way we run some of our meetings and maybe the way we document governance. But those are not very visible in day to day operations, if you compare them to the actual roles, projects, tasks, metrics and people that really make Springest what it is.

Of course all automakers told Ford that their system wouldn’t work. And of course, none of the workers that entered this new mass production hierarchy, were accustomed to it. I bet 30% of the workforce in those days could also not deal with it like it’s hard for people to get used to Holacracy or any other SooS.

The question is not if Holacracy is the solution, or the problem. The question is what we’ll create with it and its hopefully many forks, siblings and parents. Because we have enough data to show that the current systems of bureaucracy and hierarchy provide a fake sense of security and control, and make people unhappy and unproductive.



Ruben Timmerman

🌤 Accelerating systemic change by helping people, teams and organisations grow