As the practice and discipline of Holacracy has grown in popularity, been adopted by more companies and become more prominent in both the academic and business press, a number of myths and misconceptions have also arisen distorting some people’s appreciation of Holacracy and what it can offer them. I’d like to address five of these myths about Holacracy and clarify how they serve to misconceive the process.
Myth 1: Holacracy is Chaos without Direction or Cohesion
Nothing could be further from the truth. This myth has probably arisen because most of us have grown up in the top-down, command and control model of organizations and tend to equate hierarchical command and control structures with both predictability and order. We have come to rely on structure to provide our sense of order.
In Holacracy, order is not rooted in structure but rather in clear sets of accountabilities and strong bonds and relationships in which all parties know what their roles are, the span of their authority and how they are accountable to each other. Members of a Holacracy are like interlocking entrepreneurs, boldly acting from the clarity and confidence they have in their roles.
Working this way requires trust that all counterparts fulfill their roles as well. As members of a circle work together, the trust between them grows. While trust is important, it is not blind. If one member of a circle fulfills his/her role in an unexpected manner, Holacracy provides a mechanism for renegotiating role accountabilities and reestablishing trust through clarity of expectation.
Clear roles, clear responsibilities, and clear authority are all hallmarks of the graceful order of Holacracy. Holacracy responds more like an organism than an organization chart. It is not static. It adapts and responds rather than simply asking for permission and waiting for the command response. In this sense, Holacracy is order in action.
Myth 2: Everything is decided by voting
Voting is not the main mode of decision making in Holacracy. In fact, there is only one vote taken in Holacracy and that involves administrative and facilitative role players within a circle. This one vote is a governance vote rather than one related to tactical decision making. Holacracy definitely encourages lively debate however, decision making authority itself always resides with the role to which that authority is given.
Myth 3: Holacracy is flat
Holacracy is not flat in the sense of lacking hierarchy. What is different about Holacracy is that it associates the power to decide or act with specific roles rather than individual people or levels in an organization. For example, the power to make a decision about a design modification may accrue within a particular design engineering role.
That engineering role retains the authority even if the role is “junior” to the role of Engineering Vice President or even CEO. The VP of Engineering cannot overrule the design engineer. This power redistribution process may, at first, seem like a flattening of the hierarchy. In reality, it is the redistribution of decision making power to the role best suited to exercise that authority.
Myth 4: Holacracy is one meeting after another
There are a number of meetings in the Holacracy system, but these meetings do not take up the bulk of a person’s work time. When one is first learning to function in a Holacracy, time is spent learning how to work in governance and tactical meetings and in mastering their rules and techniques, so at the outset, it may seem like there is a large emphasis on meetings in Holacracy.
However, Holacracy meetings are designed to be highly efficient and to help clarify roles, responsibilities and accountabilities rather than to be used as a tool to do the actual work. Once one masters the mechanics of Holacracy meetings, he or she usually finds themselves in fewer meetings than in a more traditional organization. In addition, the meetings are crisp, purposeful and clarifying.
Myth 5: Holacracy is a cult
Holacracy is not a cult. Holacracy is a way of organizing and doing work. In this sense, it is a practice—something one does. It does not require people to accept an arcane series of beliefs about human beings or their organizations or to totally revamp one’s way of understanding people and the world. Rather, it is a way of working together that provides an alternative to the traditional command and control organizational pyramid.
As a practice, Holacracy requires that a person use and experience its techniques prior to drawing any conclusions about them. Leaning Holacracy and deciding if it can be helpful is not something one can do by reading a book or watching a video. You have to work with it for a while, adopt some of its techniques, experience them and see if they work for you and your organization.
Some people who adopt the practice of Holacracy have had their whole view of life and work altered while others have just found a few better ways to get their day-to-day work done. Holacracy does not require some sort of radical conversion, simply a willingness to engage the practice and after doing so take as much or as little as suits your own and your company’s needs. In a very real sense, Holacracy is what you make of it.