Evan Williams on Building a Mindful Company

Medium’s Experiment With Holacracy®

Holacracy received some great exposure in the Silicon Valley last weekend at the Wisdom 2.0 conference. Twitter co-founder Evan Williams noted that Holacracy is “the most foundational thing” in how they build a mindful company at Obvious Corporation, and it certainly triggered interest from the audience.

In the opening session, Ev and his colleague Jonathan Rosenfeld were interviewed on how to build a more conscious company. HolacracyOne has been working with Obvious since mid-2012, and Ev and Jonathan did a remarkable job explaining some key elements of Holacracy in less than 10 minutes. Thanks to the folks at Wisdom 2.0, the recording is available below.

Mindfully Building a Company from the Ground Up — Wisdom 2.0. Holacracy is discussed at 7min 10sec.

First off, Evan highlighted the importance of clear structure in Holacracy, and how that goes against the common (and mistaken) idea that structure is the enemy of flexibility. Instead, Holacracy integrates both structure and flexibility, and as Evan put it:

“Holacracy is the opposite of the cliché way to run a startup. People think “freedom, no job description, everybody does everything, it’s totally flat, and that’s cool because we’re all down with those rules”. But actually that creates tons of anxiety and inefficiency, and various modes of dysfunction, whether we have to build consensus around every decision, or I’m gonna do a land grab for power… People romanticize startup cultures, but I know it’s fairly rare that people in startups say “this is it, it is amazing and everybody is super-productive and going along”. So in Holacracy, one of the principles is to make the implicit explicit — tons of it is about creating clarity: who is in charge of what, who is taking what kind of decision — and there is also a system for defining that, and changing that, so it’s very flexible at the same time.”

Later on, Evan underlined Holacracy’s ability to harness everyone’s capacity in the organization. At its core, Holacracy is a “tension processing system”, it can integrate everyone’s feedback into meaningful change without requiring leaders to ‘manage’. Evan contrasted Holacracy with his past experiences:

“In the past, as my companies have grown, I’ve hired these amazing people and I felt like I was getting less and less of them as the company got bigger. Part of that was because they were in a particular area and they had ideas, concerns or perspectives, that were relevant outside of those areas, but it wasn’t clear what to do with those. Holacracy provides a very specific way where people are actually encouraged to bring this stuff up. It’s called processing tension; it’s very efficient and you really take advantage of everybody’s perspective and ideas.”

Obvious’ software engineer Jean Hsu shared similar impressions of her experience in Holacracy meetings: “Rather than being satisfied with the status quo, I feel empowered to bring things to the table that could be improved upon”.

All in all, at Wisdom 2.0 the Obvious folks introduced Holacracy a little closer to the tech world. They generated a lot of interest, and hopefully the well-attended Holacracy discussions with Anna McGrath on Saturday (picture below) as well as Eric Babinet’s and Brian Burt’s breakout session on Sunday addressed many of them. If Wisdom 2.0 is about bridging tech and wisdom, Holacracy has a lot to offer as an organizational system that encourages mindfulness via very concrete and no-nonsense processes. I’m looking forward to Wisdom 2.0 2014!

Anna McGrath from WonderWorks hosting a discussion on Holacracy at Wisdom 2.0. Thanks to Van Riper for the picture.

This blog post was originally published on February 22, 2013, at http://holacracy.org/blog/evan-williams-on-building-a-mindful-company