Joining the Holacracy-driven startup: 3 things I misunderstood

Shoko Suzuki
6 min readFeb 10, 2023

I joined the healthcare startup, Ubie about a year ago. The company has been implementing Holacracy since 2019. It has been quite an interesting journey to adapt to the Holacracy as my last job before Ubie was at a consulting firm and there was a massive gap in terms of the culture.

In this post, I want to talk about how I misunderstood the Holacracy during my adaptation phase. I won’t go into“what Holacracy is”, but if you’re interested in learning more, there are a bunch of great articles you can find on the internet.

🙅‍♀️Misunderstanding 1: Holacracy means no process and 100% ad-hoc decisions

🙆‍♀️Reality: Holacracy is extremely well-structured

One of the most common misunderstandings about it is that Holacracy means fewer rules (or almost no rules)as compared to a traditional organization. However, I was surprised by how many processes and rules there are to apply Holacracy (and there is even a constitution!)

For example, you can look at how the “tactical meeting” works.

Ref: Holacracy One

Another example is that each role and responsibility must be crystal clear, no ambiguity is allowed in Holacracy. And if you change the role or update the responsibility, there is a specific process, and the meeting for this is called a “governance meeting”.

Ref: Holacracy Org

At first, I was overwhelmed by the rules and processes that I had to follow. But after a few rounds of governance and tactical meetings, I realized the benefits. By setting clear procedures on how to handle each issue, you can eliminate the unwritten hierarchy such as:

  • The product direction changes after most of the implementation are done, just because someone higher up “didn't like” it
  • Attending the meeting “for the sake of the meeting” to make a “leadership team happy” when you know it has nothing to do with the business or the product
  • Just before the launch, your boss tells you that you need to get approval from another department and it will take an extra month to review

It takes time to get used to these meetings and rules (including the “constitution”), but once you learn it I feel like it’s a very fair system for everyone to work healthily.

🙅‍♀️Misunderstanding 2: No performance review is chaos

🙆‍♀️Reality: It’s a game changer (in a good way)

When I was first told “there is no performance review(*1) in our company and we all get the salary raise by XX% if we reach the company-wide goal”, I had no idea how it would work and it sounded like a fairy tale to me. Especially because in a consulting company, that’s all that people care about! How can the company grow without motivating people with promotions and raises?

To be honest, it took me several months for me to unlearn this point. Throughout my entire career, I was told not only to get things done but also to promote what I did to the boss and/or the team. (I had been repeatedly told by HR that Japanese women in general were not good at promoting accomplishments, compared to men.)

One incident shocked me during my first month with Ubie. When I made a deck about the insights and opportunities, colleague A shared it with colleague B on the Slack channel saying “this would be useful material” without mentioning my name. I was confused at first and felt like my work had been stolen by someone else. Then I realized that it really doesn’t matter “who did what”, as long as it’s good for the company because no one is watching your performance!

Once I fully understand the concept, I'm like a fish in the water. Even though it’s only been a year, I feel like it’s been a long time ago when I worried about what my boss/colleagues thought about my performance. I can do whatever I think is best for the product/company, without asking for any kind of permission. (But I want to emphasize that we ask for feedback and ideas from others on daily basis to make a better decision)

Another example, when I joined the company, our immediate focus was the APAC market, not the US like now. However, when we launched our product in the US as a test marketing, the product metrics were much better than in APAC. That was the trigger for making the decision to shift our focus 100% to the US and even for setting up the entity. I’m sure in most companies the choice of the market is a top-down decision, but in this case, it was a bottom-up decision by one engineer. And within two weeks, everyone onboarded with the idea and the company’s direction has shifted entirely.

* 1: not having the performance reviews is not a part of holacracy, however, the concept/purpose is the same: to speed up decision-making and give people who are closer to the problem more authority to experiment with what they think is the best solution.

Misunderstanding 3: 🙅‍♀️You should only care about your role and responsibilities

Reality: 🙆‍♀️Having a company-wide perspective is a MUST

Since Holacracy puts a lot of emphasis on roles and responsibilities being super clear, I thought you were expected to be the expert of the role, like a walking dictionary.

Here’s the quote that shocked me from one of my colleagues, who has been using Holacracy since Day 1.

“If you are doing the same job for more than 6 months, there is something wrong in your circle (= team)”

And it was true! Since I joined my roles have changed drastically: Biz Dev, UX Research, Marketing, Project Management…

And those changes are often made through the system called “ tension”

In Holacracy a “Tension” describes a person’s felt a sense that there’s a gap between the current reality and a potential future. It’s just a feeling that something could be different. For example, maybe we need a new Role for something; maybe the garbage isn’t getting taken out. The Tension itself is just a raw felt sense of dissonance — before we label it as positive or negative.

Have you ever wondered why your colleague prioritizes work A which seems to be more important over work B which seems less important? Or have you noticed that there is a misalignment between Department A and Department B while you are working in Department C?

These issues tend to get lost or ignored and are never resolved in the traditional organization. It is often a rational choice to do what you are expected to do in your position, rather than take the risk of actively addressing these issues outside of your role.

But in Holacracy, you are required to raise it as tension and there is a clear way how to process it and decide the next action. Hence everyone in the team is encouraged to think naturally from the perspective of the company, rather than from personal interests such as a promotion or what others think of you.

Conclusion: once you are used to it, it’s hard to go back to the old days

Even though I may not fully understand Holacracy yet, as long as you get the joy from ownership, self-autonomy, and company-wide thinking, you will find the Holacracy very comfortable and find it hard to go back to the traditional organization.

However, I also want to point out that Holacracy isn't for everyone. Our company Ubie has 200+ employees in total, but only Ubie Discovery (Product Dev department, with 50+ employees) uses Holacracy. And other organizations (e.g. sales and marketing, customer support …) don’t use it at all and they are run by hierarchical management.

The good news is that Ubie global applies Holacracy to the entire team. If you’re interested in building an AI-driven healthcare product for the US, from the US, Japan, Singapore, or India, please send me a message on my Linkedin or check out the JD below!

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Shoko Suzuki

A Japanese living in Singapore. Startup employee #1 →Senior Product Manager@BCG →CEO and Director of Singapore @ UbieHealth