Brian J. Robertson on Holacracy: An interview by Bob Morris

Posted on: September 11th, 2015 by bobmorris

RobertsonBrian Robertson is an experienced entrepreneur, CEO, and organizational pioneer. Forbes and Fast Company credit him for developing Holacracy, a comprehensive management system for governing and running organizations that are fast, agile, and that succeed by pursuing their purpose, free from the tyranny of top-down planning that is instantly out of date. Some of the many champions who have implemented Holacracy include Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, Ev Williams, cofounder of Twitter, Blogger, and Medium, and David Allen, the best-selling author of Getting Things Done. Brian previously founded a software development firm that won numerous awards for both fast business growth and innovative people practices. He is also the author of the book Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World.

He formulated the concept of holacracy and founded HolacracyOne, the organization that is training people and companies all over the world in this new system. Robertson had previously launched a successful software company, where he first introduced the principles that would become Holacracy, making him not just a management theorist, but someone who has successfully implemented a holacracy-powered organization. He lives near Philadelphia.Brian’s book, Holacracy was published by Henry Holt and Company (June 2015).

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Morris: Before discussing Holacracy, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Robertson: There are so many it’s hard to pick just a few. David Allen’s Getting Things Done method was foundational for me; I’m grateful to count him as a supporter of Holacracy now, and he was also kind enough to write the forward to my own book. Linda Berens’ work on understanding and integrating individual differences was also profoundly impactful for me earlier in my career. Beyond that, I owe aspects of my own development to the works of Barry Oshry, Peter Senge, Patrick Lencioni, Jim Collins, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Ken Wilber, Murray Rothbard, and Ludwig von Mises, among many others.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Robertson: Yes, I learned one of my most important business lessons on the day I nearly crashed an airplane. I was a student pilot working toward a private pilot’s license, on my first long-distance solo flight. All seemed well just after takeoff, but before long, I noticed an unfamiliar light on the instrument panel: “Low Voltage”. I wasn’t sure what that meant — they don’t teach new pilots much about the plane’s mechanics. I tapped the light, hoping it was just a glitch, but nothing changed. So I did what seemed natural at the time: I checked every other instrument for anomalies. My airspeed and altitude were good. The navigation aid told me I was perfectly on course. The fuel gauge showed plenty of gas. All these instruments were telling me I had nothing to worry about. So I accepted that consensus and effectively let the other instruments outvote the low-voltage light. I ignored it.

This proved to be a very bad decision. It eventually left me completely lost, in a storm, with no lights and no radio, nearly out of gas, and violating controlled airspace near an international airport. And this near catastrophe started when I outvoted the low- voltage light, which, it turns out, was tuned into different information than all the other instruments. Even though it was a minority voice, it was one I really needed to listen to at that moment. Dismissing its wisdom just because my other instruments didn’t see any trouble was a short-sighted decision that could have cost me my life.

In the months that followed, I came to an interesting conclusion. I was still making the same mistake — not in my plane, but with the team I was supposed to be leading at work. In fact, the near fatal error I made in the cockpit is one made on a daily basis in most organizations. An organization, like a plane, is equipped with sensors — not lights and gauges, but the human beings who energize its roles and sense reality on its behalf. Too often, an organization’s “sensor” has critical information that is ignored and therefore goes unprocessed. One individual notices something important, but no one else sees it and no channels are available to process that insight into meaningful change. In this way, we often outvote the low-voltage lights of our organizations. I wanted to change that.

Morris: book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Robertson: Economist Eric Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth was really powerful for me, and I quote from it pretty liberally in my own book. He looks at the process and mechanics of evolutionary design, and how that plays out in our economy; my book turns that same lens on how Holacracy enables evolutionary design within a company.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Robertson: Well, that sure resonates – Holacracy is currently at the “dangerous idea” phase, and the revile we’ve seen from some in today’s management orthodoxy has been particularly strong. Holacracy is a disruptive technology, one which I think has the potential to render obsolete a lot of conventional wisdom and disciplines, and nobody likes to be disrupted. Time will tell if it becomes a new orthodoxy, and if it does…well, I’ll be among the first to go looking for the next dangerous idea to disrupt it!

From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Robertson: Ha! Well, that aligns with the development of Holacracy itself. Its development was not about putting my grand ideas into action, but rather about experimenting until we found what worked in practice, and what worked was often counter-intuitive. So Holacracy today is not the system I would have designed and shouted “Eureka!” about — it’s the one we got to by trying a lot of stuff, some of which seemed pretty odd at first… but it worked, so we kept it. Sometimes it was only after further reflection and practice that we really came to understand why it’s counter-intuitive techniques actually work so well.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Robertson: That makes sense to me, and it’s one of the things Holacracy tends to help with – it makes it easier for more people to get involved with trying things, making mistakes, and learning from them more quickly, especially when on a team. In fact, I’d say the more we have to carefully pick “which” mistakes to make, the more we need to make that feedback loop of learning faster and the bar on “safe” mistakes lower, so we have even more opportunities to learn, by making more mistakes more quickly without sinking the ship in the process. I really do think Holacracy helps with that too.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Robertson: Stories are how we make sense of the world – and that’s true for everything, not just what we usually think of as “stories”. All language creates a story; even your comment that the greatest leaders throughout history were great storytellers is, itself, just a story – and likely a useful one, both for making sense of some aspect of your experience, and for choosing more effective actions in your life. Our own sense of identity comes from the story that we tell ourselves about who we are. Reveal to someone that their self-story is in fact a lie, as all stories ultimately are – a mere representation of a reality too rich to describe – and they’re likely to have either a breakdown or a transformation. Or they’ll have both – and the transformation will come once they’ve found a new self-story that’s somehow more encompassing and more liberating. I think that’s why so many people who have inspired us historically are great storytellers – they’re helping us make sense of our experience, and of ourselves, in more powerful ways, so we have more freedom to choose more powerful actions. There is no greater leverage for changing someone’s world than changing the stories they tell themselves.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Robertson: I think many change efforts focus on changing people’s mindset, and then hoping behavior will follow. And I think that rarely works – when there are entrenched cultural norms and belief patterns at play, it’s incredibly difficult to effect sustainable change that way. The approach I tend to prefer is to focus on changing people’s behaviors, and then hoping a new mindset will follow (with perhaps some help and support for that as well). That’s the approach we take when helping companies implement Holacracy too – we focus on the needed behaviors in this system and reinforcing those, by helping people build new habits, even while we’re making their old ones no longer effective or useful. By helping people actually live and get work done effectively in a new paradigm, without pushing them to “get it” up-front or think differently, I think we paradoxically create much deeper and more sustainable changes in people’s mindsets, as those often follow the new behaviors.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Holacracy. When and why did you decide to write it?

Robertson: I think organizations are the most powerful force on the planet, with massive potential to move humanity forward, and yet they’re facing some really serious challenges in today’s world that are historically unprecedented. I believe the Holacracy system is a great tool for responding to some of those challenges and unleashing the power of our organizations for good, and holding it back would just be tragic. I wanted to help set Holacracy free to do its work in the world and ultimately outgrow me and my organization, its initial stewards. Writing a book to capture and share the system seemed an important step in that direction.

Morris: To what does “holacracy” refer? An organizational structure? A concept? A system of values? All of the above? Please explain.

Robertson: Holacracy is the name of a specific system for organizing a company, using a specific set of rules. Those rules are actually written down in the “Holacracy Constitution,” an open-source document that’s like the rule book for the new “sport” of Holacracy. You could say that Holacracy is a new “social technology” for structuring and operating a company – a new set of core rules for how we break down work, set expectations, hold people accountable, and do all the things we usually look to managers to do in a conventional organization. Holacracy enacts these same functions, but without the management hierarchy – and thus without some of the downsides of top-down leadership that come with it.

Instead, Holacracy adds a set of transparent rules and processes that everyone can participate in, and uses them to distribute clear authority across a set of clear and constantly evolving roles. Individuals filling those roles have a great deal of autonomy, with equally clear boundaries and limits on that autonomy, so there’s little need spend time on consensus-building or consulting a manager. Holacracy also includes a unique governance process for updating those roles, as well as the authorities and constraints that come with them. This process is distributed and happens throughout the company, so each team is rapidly iterating on its structure and process, to continuously capture learning and evolve to meet the changing needs of the organization.

Morris: What are the defining characteristics of Holacracy?

Robertson: To understand the difference between Holacracy and either traditionally hierarchical or flat organizations, it’s important to understand that hierarchy and structure are not synonymous terms. While we often think that the hierarchy of a conventional organization IS the structure through which work gets channeled, the real decision-making channels are usually much more complicated, influenced as they are by informal, implicit, and political power arrangements. Removing the hierarchy (flawed as it may be) without replacing it with something explicit – as many flat organizations do – can lead to a strengthened emergence of these informal power alliances. This does not help to make the channels for processing work clear, and nor does it empower individuals throughout the company to take charge of their areas and drive change.

Holacracy relies on a specific set of rules and processes — in written form — by which to distribute clear authority across a set of clear roles. Individuals filling those roles have a great deal of autonomy, with equally clear boundaries and limits on that autonomy, so there’s little need to spend time on consensus-building or consulting a manager. Holacracy’s structure is explicit and formal – in many ways, Holacracy is more structured than a conventional hierarchy, just differently structured. At the same time, Holacracy adds a distributed governance process for updating that structure and evolving a team’s roles. That allows each team to reflect and explicitly capture learning in its actual workplace structure, and thus continually evolve to meet the changing needs of the organization and its environment. So, unlike most traditional and flat organizations, the structure Holacracy brings adds real clarity, while staying nimble and aligned with what’s really needed to get work done most effectively.

Morris: What are the greatest barriers to installing Holacracy in a company?

Robertson: It’s a pretty big change, and in many ways Holacracy is a disruptive technology – it requires changing behaviors and habits throughout the company to effectively install or sustain the shift, and the move away from a manager-driven hierarchy can challenge people’s sense of identity and self-worth in a deep way. That can trigger a lot of fear and resistance, or just plain confusion, and if this change process isn’t supported with the right coaching and interventions it can fail. We’ve also found that the “right” coaching and interventions are often not the intuitive ones, nor the ones that work with many other less-fundamental changes. So, it’s a difficult change to manage without a good coach, or at least good training and a supportive team.

Morris: What unique [begin italics] leadership challenges [end italics] does Holacracy pose?

Robertson: Holacracy dissolves the division between “leaders” and “followers”. In a Holacracy-powered organization, there are no managers in the classic sense – the power that managers previously had is now distributed within various roles and processes within the entire organization, using Holacracy’s governance process. When the authority to make decisions is clear and distributed, no one has to tiptoe around an issue to build buy-in, or push to get others to see things the same way they do. Individuals are free to use their best judgment and then take appropriate action, as the “owner” as well as leader of their roles.

If others have concerns about that leadership impacting their ability to lead their own roles, they can use Holacracy’s governance process to address any tensions and define team norms and constraints, thus keeping the team aligned and operating smoothly together. Holacracy enables a company full of leaders acting in concert with other leaders, through a clear distribution of authority and a dynamic team-based governance process. The challenge then is figuring out how to show up and get work done in a company full of leaders, where no one person is calling all the shots or settling all the disputes. That is an interesting challenge to watch, and a rewarding one to tackle.

Morris: Can you share an example of a company that’s adopted Holacracy, and an anecdote about its impact?

Robertson: Toronto-based nutrition and fitness industry pioneer Precision Nutrition (PN) has been running Holacracy since early 2012. The company was in a period of rapid growth, having reached 25 people and millions of dollars in sales, and it began to become clear to CEO Phil Caravaggio that his current approach, which he described as “personally trying to do every new task for our entire company” was unsustainable. Caravaggio and his co-founder, John Berardi, turned to Holacracy in the hope of retaining the company’s entrepreneurial spirit while allowing it to scale. And while the adoption has been “tough,” Caravaggio calls it “the best decision I ever made.”

PN has continued to grow at a rate of 25-50% per year and was recently named one of Fast Company’s “10 Most Innovative Companies Of 2015 In Fitness”. Now Caravaggio notices a fundamental difference: It can keep going — and growing — without him. “Holacracy has propagated leadership throughout the organization,” he says. As a case in point, he cites the fact that he was able to take a three-week vacation in the middle of the biggest and most profitable product launch in the company’s history — a moment he describes as “the demarcation point between being a collection of heroic individuals, and having a system that is trusted by talented people to do what needs to be done”.

Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in Holacracy, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Please explain.

Robertson: Well, I know this is kinda dodging the question, but my hope for small companies is that the answer is often “the whole thing.” Holacracy can be an insurmountable challenge to transform a bigger company into but small companies really do have the resilience to to do that faster, easier, and often more effectively. And that’s where Holacracy really shines – when you don’t just adopt one piece here and there, but swhen you think holistically, when you look at it as a comprehensive, cohesive, and cost-effective system.

In this instance, it resembles a sport in that those involved really do not get the full value of the shsred experience when only playing by one or two rules. But when you adopt all of the rules, you’re really playing a new game, a much more satisfying game. Small companies have the potential to truly change the game in their organizations; so, my hope is they seriously considering doing just that, and offer everyone within the given enterprise a profoundly different experience, a new and better way of organizing and getting work done together. Ho0wever, for those intent on sticking with what they know, I do include a chapter in the book with some ideas about Holacracy’s potential benefits within a traditional workplace environment.

Morris: Which question had you hoped to be asked during this interview – but weren’t – and what is your response to it?

Robertson: “How can I learn more about Holacracy, aside from the book?”

There’s no substitute for direct experience to understand a completely new system and a potential change this fundamental. There are several experiential workshops available, both public and private, offered by my company and by dozens of other Holacracy licensees all over the world. These hands-on experiences are an excellent option if you really want to get a deep sense of this new system and how it works.

Brian cordially invites you to check out the resources at this website.


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