I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how my organisation – the Institute for Sustainable Futures – organises and governs itself. We are in the midst of developing a long-term strategy for the organisation and it is opening up a lot of thinking for me about how we can best organise ourselves to meet our purpose – which is to facilitate change towards sustainable futures. I think the way we organise ourselves to align with our values and purpose is really important to help us achieve that purpose.
Holacracy is a real-world-tested social technology for agile and purposeful organisation. It radically changes how an organization is structured, how decisions are made, and how power is distributed (Holacracy.org).
While doing this thinking, I stumbled across a new social technology for organisations called Holacracy. Brian Robertson is the driving force behind holacracy and he established Holacracy One to take it out into the world. He tells his story in the TEDx video below.
After a quick scan of Holacracy, I got very excited about its potential to address a lot of the issues we face at ISF. Some of those issues include:
- Clarity about roles, responsibility and accountability within a relatively flat structure
- Making meetings more useful and efficient
- Empowering everyone to sense and act on issues they identify.
The more I dig into it, the more interesting Holacracy looks as a way of dealing with these and other issues. Holacracy is partly inspired by Ken Wilber’s integral theory, which was the topic of my doctoral research. So what is holacracy?
- A social technology for purposeful organisation
- A new power structure, vested in a constitution
- An integrative way to distribute autocratic authority
- A system for governance and operations.
I’ve only just begun to learn about holacracy but here are my thoughts so far.
A holacratic organisation has a clear purpose and distributes power throughout the organisation to achieve that purpose. In the case of ISF, we have a clear mission: to create change towards sustainable futures. So we are well placed to start pursuing a holacratic approach.
As an aside, I think our mission would be better expressed as to facilitate change towards sustainable futures. For me, change is like energy – you can’t create it or destroy it, but you can direct it or transform it. Our purpose is to facilitate, harness or direct change so that it moves towards a sustainable human civilisation.
Holacracy has a formal constitution that distributes power across the organisation. There are no CEOs or Directors. Instead, everyone in the organisation has identified roles and has authority within those roles. This is the first significant obstacle to using holacracy at ISF; as part of the University of Technology, Sydney, we are bound by Collective Agreements and university rules and procedures. While we have a lot of independence in terms of how we organise ourselves, we must also comply with university requirements. So any application of holacracy at ISF would need to sit alongside these other requirements, rather than completely replacing them.
The way that holacracy distributes authority is integrative. People become sensors that may be tuned in to important issues for the organisations that others do not see. We need to listen to everyone involved in the organisation and respond. The goal is that:
Anything, sensed by anyone, anywhere in the organisation, can get rapidly and reliably processed into meaningful change…if relevant to the purpose.
The way this works in practice is that people take on one or more defined but constantly evolving roles within the organisation. Roles have a defined purpose expressing why it exists and what it aims to manifest. They have an agreed scope or domain which is a property right that grants control over that scope or domain. They have accountabilities that define their expectations and authorities.
A role can do anything they want to express their purpose as long as it does not affect other roles without their permission.
A key way that roles operate is by sensing tensions within the organisation – the sense of a specific gap between what is and the potential of the organisation. Brian Robertson draws attention to three definitions of organisational structure:
- Formal structure (the organisation chart and job descriptions)
- Extant structure (the one actually operating)
- Requisite structure (the natural one, “wants to be”).
In most organisations, alignment between these three structures is poor. By continually acting on tensions between the formal structure and requisite structure, holacracy attempts to bring these structures into alignment. This is achieved by continually evolving role descriptions to process tensions. This takes place in governance meetings.
In holacracy, governance is not a democratic process. It is governance of the organisation through the people (as sensors) for the purpose.
Roles naturally congregate together in circles and sub-circles in a holarchy – where everything is both a part and a whole. Circles organise their own work and communicate through a double link system where someone from a higher level circle sits in on meetings of lower level circles and someone from lower level circles is elected to represent those circles in higher level meetings.
Having clear governance allows people to get on with the work of the organisation in Tactical Meetings. These meetings have a clear structure to facilitate rapid triage of issues. In Tactical Meetings:
- Every agenda item gets processed every meeting, on-time every-time
- The focus is on next-actions, not endless analysis
- Metrics are surfaced and checklists are reviewed – quickly
- No one hides – radical transparency shows all progress, or lack thereof.
The diagram below sums up the process. There is a lot more depth that I still need to explore and I will post more as my investigation of holacracy continues. There are a lot of great resources available, including an introductory webinar, a summary of how it works, the holacracy constitution and training opportunities.