borrowed from Gavin Bobo on flickr

Differentiating Organization & Tribe

“It is an inappropriate use of love and care to use love and care to get something done” — David Allen

Editor’s note: this blog post is an excerpt of the upcoming Holacracy® book. It compiles ideas and stories about the previously discussed distinction between organizational and cultural spaces. — Olivier


Holacracy is not about the people. This is one of the aspects of the practice that people have the hardest time swallowing, but it’s fundamental. Holacracy doesn’t try to improve people, or make them more compassionate, or more conscious. And it doesn’t ask them to create any specific culture or relate to each other in any particular way. Yet precisely by not trying to change people or culture, it provides the conditions for personal and cultural development to arise more naturally—or not, when it’s not meant to be.

I consider this one of the most beautiful paradoxes of Holacracy. And it is not an easy one to explain, especially nowadays, with the push for improving organizational cultures, developing individuals, and promoting more conscious leadership. Holacracy does its work on an entirely different level – it doesn’t directly conflict with most of these efforts, it just puts in place a different fundamental underlying system, where these types of initiatives are simply less of a leverage point, and where you get some of the same results without seeking them directly.

Holacracy is fundamentally focused on the organization and its purpose—not the people and their desires and needs, however positive these may be. Holacracy’s systems and processes continually help the organization find its own unique identity and structure to do its work in the world, while protecting it from human agendas, egos, politics, etc. Instead of those driving the organization, Holacracy allows it to be more driven by its own unique purpose in life, like a child developing its own identity and goals beyond those of its parents.

Untangling can be painful

For most people, leaving behind personal politics is a relief, once they get over the initial discomfort of the shift. But in most organizations there’s a very positive side to the personal climate as well, which is much harder to let go of – the relationships developed and grown within a supportive environment, and a human culture of care and connection. Those who have enjoyed this kind of environment are often quite apprehensive when they first experience Holacracy, and understandably so.

When the David Allen Company was going through this transition, many of the people within were struggling with this very point in the beginning. They’d worked hard for years to build a very close, warm, intimate culture—you could feel it the minute you walked into their building. It felt like a really great place to work, where people trusted each other, listened to each other, and shared a deep connection. In the process of installing Holacracy, we were deliberately tearing out that carefully woven fabric of relationships from the ways they did their work, and many people found it quite jarring. But Holacracy wasn’t removing all of their hard-won connectedness and trust, just moving it into a different space and liberating it from the organizational matters at play.

At some point it really clicked for David, who put it into his own words:

“What you’re saying is that it is an inappropriate use of love and care, to use love and care to get something done.”

That has since become one of my favorite quotes about this aspect of Holacracy. We’re not dismissing or limiting a culture of love and care by installing Holacracy—in fact, we are making the domain of human connection more sacred, because we are installing a system where we no longer need to lean on our connections and relationships just to be able to process organizational tensions. It also has the reverse effect as well: it reduces the impact of the organizational tensions on the human relationships at play.

Some months later, reflecting on the transition his company had gone through, David made an interesting observation: “As we’ve distributed accountability down and through the organization, I’ve had much less of my attention on the culture. In an operating system that’s dysfunctional, you need to focus on things like values in order to make that somewhat tolerable, but if we’re all willing to pay attention to the higher purpose, and do what we do and do it well, the culture just emerges. You don’t have to force it.” What he and his team were discovering is that far from suppressing the personal and interpersonal dimensions, Holacracy actually releases them to be more fully themselves and more fully together, without muddying those spaces with business agendas and organizational politics.

A healthy relationship requires clear boundaries

In this way, Holacracy creates a healthy separation of different domains that are often fused in traditional organizations and sometimes even more so in progressive organizations. My business partner Tom describes this as differentiating the “personal space” and the “tribe space” from the “role space” and the “organizational space.” I love this distinction, and what it points to. These very different spheres of human experience often get blurred – and understandably so, as they all coexist together within any organization. The personal and tribe spaces are where all the wonderful richness of being human come into play; the former is about you and your values, passions, talents, ambitions, and identity, while the latter is about how we interact together and our shared values, culture, meaning-making, and language.

The role space on the other hand is where we operate role-to-role to get things done for the sake of the organization’s purpose, and the organizational space is the realm of governance, where we actually shape the structure of the organization to allow the purpose to flow through it effectively. Holacracy doesn’t devalue the personal and interpersonal domains, as some people fear at first—in fact, I believe it instills a deeper honoring of them, much more than many organizations that focus entirely on that. It does so by clearly differentiating these four spaces and holding appropriate boundaries between them, which allows them to co-exist together without any dominating the others – it moves them from an unconscious fusion and the blurred boundaries that result, to a healthy marriage, distinct yet integrated.


This article was originally published on August 28, 2013 at http://holacracy.org/blog/differentiating-organization-tribe