Interview with Brian Robertson of Holacracy

Interview with Brian Robertson of Holacracy

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Conor O’Higgins: For my readers who don’t know you, who are you and what do you do?

Brian Robertson: I’m Brian Robertson and I work with a system called Holacracy; I’m the main pioneer behind it. The Holacracy system itself is a framework for running a decentralized organization. It is an alternative to the management hierarchy; instead of centralizing power in a CEO or equivalent at the top of a hierarchy and breaking it down, it is a constitutional power structure, that then introduces a governance process to a company and distributes power out to clear roles, and ultimately it gives everybody the ability to drive change in the organization in a more peer-to-peer, decentralized way.

COH: What would you say to critics who say that you’re putting a bunch of idiots in charge, and the best people should be in charge? You should pick the smartest people and give them the power.

BR: I totally agree: you want the smartest people in charge, and the smartest people are different for different roles. Like there are certain roles I think I’m really smart and really good for; there are other roles that you don’t want me in charge of, because that would be insanely stupid. The goal of Holacracy is not to democratize everything, and give everyone a voice in everything; it doesn’t do that. What it does is define what are the roles, what are the functions, what are the decisions that need to get made; get those clarified and then get the right person in that position to lead it. So it’s decentralized, but it’s not group decision-making. Ultimately, if you get a role to, say, plan our events or whatever, and you lead that; you’re like the CEO of that little one-man business. And if you’re not the right fit for the role, we’re going to get you out of it and get somebody else into it, but there’s not a command hierarchy between us. You have your part that you lead, I have my part that I lead; we know what we can expect of each other.

One of the common misconceptions is that when you don’t have a management hierarchy you’ve got like this big flat structure where everybody is involved in every decision – and that’s not true at all. With Holacracy, it’s more like in a society where if I want to redecorate my kitchen, I don’t call a meeting of all my neighbors to get consensus and buy-in – it’s my kitchen. But I know where the boundaries are, I know my neighbor’s kitchen is over there. I know to take my own car to the airport, not my neighbor’s car. Holacracy does that in an organization.

COH: If I’m planning events, who puts me in the role? Do I just volunteer?

BR: Nope, there’s another role whose job it is to interview people, figure out who the right fit for the right roles. And they can put people in roles, and they can swap them out. Now, they can’t tell the person what to do in a role; like I’m like a typical manager that can direct the action and micromanage. It’s a role that assigns people to roles, and that’s the extent of what that person does. They’re not telling them how to do the role; they’re looking for the right fit. And then there’s a governance process, that you can add extra expectations on that person or constraints, or whatever you need to make it work. The goal isn’t to have all the answers; it’s just to let you evolve and adapt your structure.

COH: Right and so what are you building? Is it a software platform, is it an app?

BR: There is a software tool use to help companies in this, but it’s first and foremost a process. It’s a social technology, not a software technology. It’s been around for ten years now. We’re not a start-up, we’ve been around for a while. There’s a thousand companies all over the world doing this, and it’s growing exponentially with more every week. And there’s lots of different ways of supporting it, we have training programs, there’s a network of coaches all over the world that help companies with this.

COH: Do you think software platforms could be built so it’ll make it easier?

BR: Yes, and my company has one. There’s a software tool called GlassFrog which is what people use that they’re doing Holacracy to structure it and make it all transparent and clear.

COH: I read Swarmwise by Rick Falkvinge, who started The Pirate Party. He ran it in this ‘swarm’ way, with what he calls the ‘three-pirate rule’, where if any three people want to do something, that authorizes it. So if three people want to, say, start an event, they don’t need to ask permission from anyone else.

BR: In a Holacractic organization, say you had that three person role – well, how do you change that? You need a meta-system. The Constitution itself is a generic one that’s used by thousand companies because it doesn’t tell you how to run your company; it gives you the way to evolve that over time. So you might have the three-person rule, or whatever, but what happens when that needs to change, or adapt?

Also, self-management has been around for decades. There’s a lot of companies like Morning Star, a tomato processing company with a billion dollars of revenue and no management hierarchy. But up until about five or ten years ago, every company doing self-management has had to homegrow their own unique approach. It’s like the early PC revolution, where it’s just hackers in garages building their own unique computer, and that’s not scaleable, it doesn’t spread to the mainstream.

What Holacracy’s done is given a generic framework, an off-the-shelf packaged self-management framework so that anyone that wants to do self-management doesn’t have to spend ten years inventing their own unique approach, hacking together their PC in their garage. They can say: here’s a standard one I can start from, and then customize on top of that. That’s what’s enabled it to really spread like wildfire so far all over the world.

COH: What would be a good examples of Holacratic organizations?

BR: Zappos is the largest using across the entire company, 1500 employees, end-to-end, selling shoes and clothing and things like that. That’s a pretty famous one in the US. There’s also David Allen Companies, the author of the book Getting Things Done, his company uses Holacracy – there’s two government agencies in Dubai doing Holacracy, there’s a government agency in Washington state doing Holacracy. There’s departments in very large local corporations like Starwood and Dannon. So it’s getting around.

COH: That’s especially interesting that not just private businesses are doing it, but state and government as well. That’s practically a political revolution.

BR: It is fascinating. I’m shocked that there’s governments interested! But they’re suffering from bureaucracy in a major way right now. They need news approaches – this is giving them a much more agile way to run an organization.

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