Don’t standardise on Basecamp, Trello, Holacracy or any other system. Here’s the alternative.

Do I really have to wear this uniform?

Tools like Basecamp, Asana and Trello can be incredibly useful to foster better collaboration and get work done together.

When you find a tool you like, there’s a huge temptation to say let’s run our whole company using this thing. All the projects, teams and work in one system.

Standardisation has real benefits. There’s simplicity in being able login to one system and see a single list of projects, and have all communication going through the same channel. When you join a different team or project you can dive straight in without a systems learning curve.

Yet there’s a big trade-off. Standardisation means a lack of diversity which can cause some unpleasant consequences.

The trouble with standardisation

Some individuals or teams will simply just not like a particular tool or system. It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong or bad about the people or the tool. It’s just different needs and personal preference. Forcing a tool on people when it’s not what they need is a certain way to slow them down. It’s often demoralising too.

A lack of diversity can also lead to a lack of resilience. When the day comes that you hit upon a fundamental snag in your chosen tool which makes it unsuitable for your organisation, you’re potentially really stuck and face a big migration job. Or if the service suffers a major hack, outage or shuts down altogether, then your whole company might grind to a halt.

And finally, there’s just something so last century about forcing tools on people for the sake of standardisation, regardless of their preferences. Modern workplaces prioritise autonomy and self-management. The people doing the work are best placed to pick the tools they need to get their job done.

Holacracy: the post-modern godfather of standardisation

The most extreme case of standardisation today is in organisational operating systems like Holacracy. They go a step further and specify how the entire organisation is run. Decisions must be made in particular ways, meetings have set formats, and the overall governance model is one-size-fits-all across the company.

If people don’t like it then they are the problem, not the system. Resistance must be ‘coached out of them’ or they’re encouraged to head towards the exit.

The irony is that Holacracy is supposed to be all about self-management, but the top-down imposition of a standard operating system is the antithesis of self-management.

As Mieke points out, the Holacracy constitution can be modified and ‘apps’ can be added, so technically it’s not fixed. Yet many companies like Medium and Blinkist eventually seem to find it too rigid and overwhelming. They choose to move away from Holacracy altogether and find their own way of doing things.

Fostering diversity without (too much) chaos

A little bit of organisational messiness is no bad thing. Creativity flourishes when there aren’t too many rules and there’s freedom to freestyle. But complete confusion and anarchy is not going to achieve much. There’s a need to find balance.

Modern organisations do better by prioritising diversity in tools, systems and ways of working, and find creative ways to avoid total confusion and anarchy.

This means not getting in the way of people organising and working in different ways.

If a team somewhere loves Sociocratic ways of working, then great, leave them to it. But don’t force it on the whole company.

If one team uses Basecamp, and other uses Asana, Trello, or some mashup of a variety of tools and systems, then great.

You might have parts of a company which work using elements of relatively traditional management (but hopefully of the good kind, with a focus on coaching and enabling.) And in other places the structure might be much more decentralised and fluid.

The goal isn’t to become a ‘Teal organisation’ or a Holacracy for its own sake, but to do whatever’s needed to allow people to do their work to realise a vision.

With a good map you can navigate a diverse system

In complex and diverse cities we find our way around using maps. Diverse workplaces can have maps too.

The way to do this is draw how the overall vision for the initiative breaks down into ever more specific ideas which contribute to the vision. It forms a pattern of concentric circles. You can do it on a whiteboard or using physical cards created by initiative mapping inventor Charles Davies. You can also create an easily updatable and shareable map using an online tool called Maptio.

An initiative map created using Maptio.

At each level of the map you can record who is the natural author — in other words, the authority — for that part of the vision.

An ‘initiative map’ like this doesn’t only show the natural, creative hierarchy beneath the formal organisation. It can also be used to keep a log of which systems, processes and tools are being used throughout the initiative.

There are so many different ways to approach things like accountability, governance and collaboration to get work done. You can let go of standardisation and allow people to find their own ways to do things, and keep track of it all in the map. Diversity without getting completely lost.

So if you want to embrace the future of work, don’t fall into the standardisation trap. Celebrate diversity and keep a good map, focussing on a break-down of the vision, natural authorship and a colourful array of different ways of doing things.


Tom Nixon is the founder of Maptio, an online tool for consultants and their clients building progressive, diverse, self-managing organisations. Get early access to the beta version by registering here.

You can subscribe to the Maptio publication here on Medium for more articles like this one and lots of other good stuff about self-management.

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