The idea of an organization filled with highly motivated and talented people who act autonomously and creatively as they strive to accomplish a shared purpose without the need for top-down command and control has become a kind of leadership Holy Grail. Developing this sort of an organization holds the promise not only of helping organizations become more effective and nimble, but also doing so in a way that enhances the work life, uniqueness and dignity of all.  Self-Management, as this approach to leadership and management is widely called (What is Self-Management, 2015), is a worthy goal, but one that is difficult to achieve without the support of a clear and highly adaptable organization structure.


Organizations that have attempted to move toward Self-Management without a supportive structure like Holacracy (Robertson, 2015) (Bishay, 2015) have tended to run into at least five major problems:

  1. Distributing power and authority fairly,
  2. Making decisions efficiently,
  3. Collaborating effectively,
  4. Maintaining cohesive focus on organizational purpose.
  5. Performing at peak levels.

1. Distributing power and authority

Because Holacracy is an integrated and structured practice it is uniquely capable of helping organizations avoid any and all of these issues. The shift to self management leadership requires a major change in the cultural fabric of most organizations as well as the unspoken, and often unconscious, notions many of us have about what it even means to be “organized” in such a way as to be able to do real work in a meaningful way.  Without the structural and intellectual support of a system like Holacracy, organizations can feel painfully adrift and rudderless as they try to adapt and capture the promise of Self-Management.  Let’s take a look at each of these five problems with self-management and how Holacracy can assist in avoiding the worst pitfall of each.

The exercise of fair and appropriate power and authority is an essential component of any well-functioning organization.  Many who are used to the command and control, top down model of organizational life, think of Self-Management as a management system free of power and authority: the proverbial “flat organization.”  A Self-Managed organization is NOT an organization without power and authority. Rather, it is an organization in which power and authority are distributed to those roles in the organization where they can best be exercised—usually by those actually doing the work.

Holacracy’s emphasis on role clarity, specific accountabilities and the distribution of authority throughout the organization to roles rather than individuals in a strict hierarchy, enables the allocation of authority to be done in a way that is transparent, clear to all, purposed-focused and fair.  Power and authority are directly connected to role and accountability.  Individual responsibility and authority are fluidly aligned to enable the organization to adapt and respond to its changing environment.

2. Making decisions efficiently

In practice, decision making in a poorly implemented Self-Management system often defaults to a form of group management in which all decisions, large or small, are made by consensus. When this happens, decision making slows to a crawl as everyone, whether they have a relevant accountability or not, feels the need to be involved and concur with every decision:  the proverbial management by committee.

Since Holacracy distributes decision making authority to roles not individuals or groups, it also helps to avoid defaulting to time consuming consensus decision making.  Roles that have decision making authority, clear boundaries and autonomy in pursuit of their accountabilities may choose to solicit input for other colleagues or groups of colleagues but the decision making authority remains with the role.

3. Collaborating effectively

Collaborating means working together (co-laboring) to achieve a task or accomplish a goal and assumes that each co-laborer brings his or her unique contribution to the task. In poorly implemented Self-Management efforts, collaboration easily becomes conflation.  So much emphasis is placed on working together that individual contributions become fused (the root meaning of conflate) into a group accountability in which everyone is accountable for everything.  Specific expertise, unique skills and abilities and a sense of individual accomplishment and satisfaction are lost.  As roles become fused, clarity is lost and gives way to confusion.

Holacracy inhibits this fusion and resultant failure to truly collaborate. By maintaining clear boundaries and accountabilities for each role, Holacracy ensures that the whole will really be more than the sum of its separate parts:  it frees each part to do its own part by maintaining role clarity and separation.

4. Maintaining a cohesive focus on purpose

Too much focus on the “self” in Self-Management can lead to a type of self-centeredness in which role incumbents focus on what seems to them to be most beneficial to themselves personally; e.g., looking good as compared to others or “getting ahead.”  Caught up in a focus on the self, they can lose sight of the overall purpose of their specific role, the circle of which they are a part or the organization over all.  They can become ego rather than purpose driven.

Holacracy’s tools and structure continually orient contributors to role, circle and organizational purpose.  Purpose remains center stage and functions as a kind of gyroscope whose rotation keeps the enterprise both on course and able to adapt and respond to environmental pressures of all sorts.  It is part of the accountability of “lead links” in Holacracy to continually focus roles and circles on their purpose.  Role and circle accountabilities and authority enable work to be accomplished with autonomy, innovation and creativity while this continued refocusing of all parts of the organization on their purpose ensures organizational coherence in pursuit of a common goal. 

5. Performing at peak

For Self-Management to enable an organization to achieve or maintain peak levels of performance, it has to be implemented in such a way that it enhances the motivation and commitment of all members of the organization.  Many traditional command and control types of organizations use top-down performance management and compensation systems as a central motivational tool.  As an organization moves away from these traditional structures and toward Self-Management, it runs the risk of losing this type of motivational tool, without a replacement and suffering performance shortfalls as a consequence.

Self-Management requires self-motivation, and the keys to self-motivation are meaningful metrics and consequent performance data based on those metrics.  Just like Holacracy continually focuses an organization on its purpose, it also emphasizes the development of metrics for every role and circle in the organization.  Metrics provide real time performance feedback so that each role in the organization can gauge performance and strive to improve or maintain performance.  In a Self-Management environment, without clear metrics and an effective means of accessing performance data in as close to real time as possible, individual role incumbents can easily lose focus, a sense of accomplishment or data with which to improve performance.

As I mentioned at the outset, Self-Management is a worthy organizational goal.  However, transitioning to Self-Management is rife with issues that require the support of robust leadership and management practices, like Holacracy.  If you are thinking of transitioning to Self-Management, are in mid-implementation or just curious, I would love to talk more with you.  Click below to request a consultation.