Holacracy to the rescue?

tl;dr: OER17 made me think about the way educational institutions, initiatives and networks operate. Holacracy came to mind and I try to evaluate its use for these kinds of structures.

As I pointed out before: OER17 has not come to an end yet. I keep on remembering conversations, re-reading session descriptions, browsing through project websites, and I still have to catch up on some blog posts.

One theme that continues to make an impression on me is that of ‘organization’. Jim Groom noted that this conference is not driven by vendors or , but by “the people who still have real skin in the game”. I agree with that and I think lots of these people are re-thinking the way they have been working, be it in individual projects driven by grants and project funding, be it as educators and researchers in educational institutions, as employees of some vendor, lobbyist group or association (or anything in between).

The idea of organizing ‘open’ seems strange and people smarter and more renowned than me have been trying to define and claim open education, specifically, over and over. However, organizations and the way they operate, the way they interact within and without, can be drifting or steered towards openness or towards closedness. A structure or an organization whose members try to do things in the open while the organization remains closed itself, will create tensions within and without of itself, which is why we included administration as a driver of openness in our OER16 workshop; see the Towards Openness page for some more details

To me, two initiatives stood out during OER17 regarding organizational structure and awareness of this. One of them (and I keep on referring people to this project) is the idea of Open Ed Tech Cooperativism that was presented by Tannis Morgan, Brian Lamb and Grant Potter (I wrote a couple of sentences in my previous post about this). The idea of a cooperative of people who care about the things they develop, seems both disobedient and old-fashioned in a good way. The other one is the network of people that make Virtually Connecting. VC is growing in many forms (profile, outreach, network, number of conferences and guests) and I have had the chance to peak behind the curtains a couple of times now. This growth does not happen by accident, VC is the work of many who put in lots of hours, thought and skill after or before their actual daywork. Many of these people are in more or less precarious positions (as many others in education) and they still see value in contributing to this community.

I myself  have been part of of a couple of organizations. Public institutions, large corporations, small initiatives, associations, hubs and labs, formal and informal networks. All of these had (sometimes huge, sometimes smaller) difficulties in taking decisions, in implementation, in documentation and communication. Some of these organizations were very hierarchical, some were intended to operate with flat hierarchies (in which case it takes not long for a primus inter pares to arise). Others were organized in functional units, some by geographical boundaries. None of these really seemed to work well, there often seems to be a tension between a quick and strategically sound decision, its implementation and communication and the sense of membership and participation among stakeholders. “Working well” in itself seems to lack a definition for me. Maybe the friction that some of these organizational structures cause is part of what makes them ‘good’ in some way because they cause friction, discussions and such, even though that is hard to believe when you find yourself in these situations. Some of the organizations I was a part of were eaten up by these processes, it seemed like everything was about causing the smallest possible friction, about not showing uncertainty or doubt, about games of politics. Needless to say, I have been loosely interested in alternatives. One of these alternatives is the model of Holacracy and I came to read about it after a conversation with a friend who transformed his organization to this organizational mode. I have never been a part of an organization that uses this approach, so my interest might be caused by a ‘grass is greener on the other side’ way of thinking.

So what is Holacracy?

According to Wikipedia, Holacracy is a model of organizational governance relying on distributed authority and decision-making in teams. Instead of job descriptions, people take on roles, which are members in self-organized circles while each circle has a defined goal and uses ” ‘integrative decision making’ for proposing changes in governance and amending or objecting to proposals” (Wikipedia). These circles are organized hierarchically and some roles within each circle are supposed to facilitate communication between circles and with the larger organization.

For me, it helped to look at what Wikipedia calls “Misconceptions” to see what is not meant by Holocracy:

It is not hierarchy-less, but the hierarchies seem to be created by the interpretation of the roles and circles. These form a holarchy, which is a hierarchy without “top or bottom”.

Holacracy is also not structureless – rather the opposite: the roles and circles lend it structure.

And, as you might expect, Holacracy is not generic. The term itself is trademarked and, as with many other systems of management, consultants are certified to train and implement it.

This description is probably not at all sufficient and I don’t think a single short blog post can do this system justice. I like its inherent idea of autonomy in circles while each circle contributes to a common goal, a purpose or idea.

As many other hip forms of organizational ideas, Holacracy is associated with software development. One of the associations I had when I first heard about it was about Stakeholder Theory, which followed me through my Bachelor studies for quite some time. I want to be careful of plainly adopting Silicon Valley narratives (disruption and Holacracy to the rescue!) but, apart from the widely discussed adoption at an online retailer, I don’t see too much of a hype here. Even though it has been given some attention by publications like the Harvard Business Review, which also claims a hype around it, Holacracy has not made it to the educational sector yet (at least, not that I am aware). This might seem both surprising and not at all simultaneously. Surprising, because many of the character traits that I describe above (autonomous circles, roles that are interpreted differently) seem like a perfect fit for educational institutions, at least in many settings and especially for a western / European university. Then again, I am not surprised that it has not been adopted in formal educational settings because, to those in charge, this must seem like giving up control and the trend is definitely going towards the opposite direction. Also, the structures under which educational institutions operate have grown for decades and centuries now. Holacracy seems to me like it cannot be integrated slowly into a hierarchical organization, rather the opposite.

From what I know and hear, every organizational mode has upsides and downsides. Cooperatives seem to make sure that everybody has skin in the game but their decision-making processes can clog quickly, decisions are voted on and the coops I know of and the members I have spoken to over the last couple of months are afraid of opening up their organization due to a potential overhaul by new coop members. These fears seem legit if you have a simple majority voting rule in your organization. On the other hand, hierarchical organizations do not seem to fit any of the ideas that many in the educational sector seek to promote: autonomy, equality and equity, care, agency, creativity, questioning of given structures, criticality. And there are only few things that can be more mind-numbing than trying to find your way through a hierarchical bureaucratic structure.

I don’t think there is any organizational mode that is not messy and exhausting on some level, but what I like about the idea of Holacracy is this:

  1. Autonomy: the roles and circles seem to provide enough autonomy for each member to identify with their ideas and to work on their implementation without someone constantly looking over their shoulder for the wrong reasons. This does not seem like a system of given permissions, but of freedom with necessary limitations. This might be seen as a rhetoric difference by some, but I don’t think so.
  2. Growth seems possible: the classical startup tale is one where 2-3 very like-minded founders work their butts of, receive funding, hire people and, once the personal capacities of the funders are outgrown, realize that they need some kind of organizational structure. Then they implement some organization matrix or a hierarchy with job descriptions to become similar to the very organization they left before founding a startup. Holacracy seems to work differently (see: 1. Autonomy) and the startup cycle is just meant to illustrate a point here.
  3. Geographical independence: I am not sure about this, but it seems like Holacracy would enable organizations whose members are distributed geographically really well. Members of one circle have some freedoms of how they want to get their job done and that is a good thing when you work with people who are scattered around the globe.
  4. Different time commitments: many non-profits hugely benefit from the work of volunteers and education is definitely a sector that does. From my own experience, volunteering is difficult or straight up impossible when the organization you are volunteering for is inflexible. You need to be able to adapt work to your own workflow, your everyday life and to your ecosystem – otherwise, you will probably stop volunteering pretty quickly. It seems like the roles and circles would promote that more than many other organizational structures.

This post is just meant as some basic thoughts on Holacracy and come nowhere near a well-structured analysis and I would love your thoughts on this. Personal experiences, ideas, conceptual flaws I overlooked – let me know. We could form a circle and discuss them.

11 Comments

  1. Oops clicked “post comment” too early. I was gonna say I can see how holacracy is a great way forward for organizations that don’t already have structure. Especially volunteer organizations… Not just VC but in general. It’s a way to combat tyranny of structurelessness while affording flexibility and non top-down structure.

    It is also built, I think, on trust. As you point out a co-op model makes this reliance on trust a potential problem of inclusion (I just conflate the two models simply because based on discussions, we’re considering both for vconnecting). Lots to think about and discuss. See u in a bit inshallah

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    1. Yes, I think anyone who starts with a blank slate, organizationally speaking, should consider this or the questions it poses. I think that when you build an organization or put work into it you usually want it to outlast your engagement within it, you want it to outlast your personal work contribution. I think trust is important, but this also calls for trust not only in people but for trust in the organization, its feedback loops, processes and balance.

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  2. Thanks for your post, Christian. After today’s talks in the VC context I can see how this could work. I’m also thinking about the Orchestral model which I’m familiar with. Under a conductor (or group representing such) there are semi-circles of different instrument groups. I see VC sessions like a number of different instruments getting together for a fugue or such. Each person brings with them their strengths but the structure and common understanding is vital.

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    1. Thanks, Wendy, I like that image of an orchestra as well. I feel that the main difference, if we were to stay with that image, is that on orchestra moves with every blink of the conductor, it almost mimics him or her (I am stretching the metaphor here and I don’t think that is what you meant). The model of Holacracy, as I understand it, gives more freedom (and with that, responsibility) to the circles in which the work is done.

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  3. Thanks for this Christian. I had never heard of holacracy and I was really pleased to find out more. When I read the Wikipedia article, I was struck by the emphasis on branding and that gave me pause for thought. I was very interested to read of the claim for gender equality offered by holacracy practices eg https://medium.com/@_Kristy_/holacracy-a-step-toward-equality-447898ae4c73 . The critique section at the end was quite interesting and the sentence “At Zappos, about 14% of the company left voluntarily in 2015 in a deliberate attempt by Zappos to have only people that believed in the system remain.[36]” tended to reinforce my doubt that holacracy was inherently democratising.
    I guess I have to acknowledge my suspicion/ bias that importing practice from software development will solve inequalities. I think we can learn a lot from examples that offer a common good eg Open Source Software Development yet still reinforce existing structural inequalities such as race and gender. And the biggest danger for me, as has been the case with technology in general, is to think that good outcomes will naturally follow technology and its practices. Technology can shape us not always for the good but when we lose faith in our own (partial) agency over technology, or abrogate that to those who build it or make money from it, then I think we leave ourselves in a vulnerable position.
    It’s always easy to see the major problems with institutions and I am all in favour of resistance and holding them to account but replacing them wholesale alternative organisational forms needs a lot of thought and challenge.
    History can help us too – I’m looking forward to reading a book by Marie Hicks http://mariehicks.net/ about how UK discarded women technologists in the period 1950-1970 and lost its edge in Computing. It is very interesting for me as I entered Computing as a programmer in the period directly following her study and even the little I have already read has helped explain some of my experiences.

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    1. It’s interesting you say that, Frances, as I think Christian expressed doubt about holacracy in a private hangout the same evening of this post, I think he said when he first heard of it, it reminded him of scientology (and of course all of us were taken aback). All the points you raise are well-taken.
      I think, rather than necessarily adopting any idea from any field into our own context, it’s useful to see what other models are out there, compared to those we are used to seeing, and figuring out if some or all of them can be useful to us. Definitely questioning the ways in which newer or different structures may reproduce inequality or create new power dynamics. Neither existing hierarchies nor structurelessness promote equity… and intentionally promoting equity and enacting it is complex and contextual again…

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      1. Yes, I am still on the fence and it might not come across in this post. It feels like Holacracy is a cult which its members are proud to belong. The Zappos expample shows that quite nicely. We might find bits of Holacracy that help us solve a problem, it might and probably will create new problems. I remember that we had a vivid discussion in the private hangout whether “circles” should be renamed (because of associations to cults, perceptions of closedness), for example. We need to have more of these discussions. Personally, I am very frustrated by the way Higher Ed institutions are organized. But I also know that some of the decisions that led to today’s organizations were sometimes well-intended and necessary and sometimes plain out discriminating. I hope topics like this will come up more often – we need to critically question the way we organize our institutions or others will.

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    2. Thank you, Frances! Will follow up on the piece by Kristy Meade. I think your suspicion is right, software and tech does reinforce marginalization and we should not trust narratives that promise easy solutions for messy problems, in this case organization and management. Maha I think what I liked and still like about Holacracy is that it seems to distribute responsibility and decision-making. Most probably, as Maha pointed in her keynote at OER17, trying to solve one problem will create a new, different problem. We need to be more aware of that and see what we like about concepts like Holacracy just as we need to be aware that tech can be used for redlining, for surveillance, especially in education. And these narratives are always narratives of easy solutions, of care, of ‘the next big thing’. We should try and use this awareness as a filter, as a set of reading glasses, and we might find parts that help us solve these problems. We will also find lots of crappy self-proclaimed, tech-solutionist ideas that we should fight.

      Your comment’s last paragraph reminded me of an episode by Planet Money, a podcast I usually listen to, named “When women stopped coding”. It also refers to experiences of women in computer science education – let me know what you think. http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2016/07/22/487069271/episode-576-when-women-stopped-coding

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