Holacracy: A Book Review, Part 2
This is part two of a two-part review of Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World, by Brian J. Robertson. To read part one, please click here.
In the first part of this review, we explored the first two chapters of Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World (Holacracy), as well as part of Chapter 3. In this post, I will be continuing my review of Chapter 3, “Organizational Structure.” This chapter contains quite a bit of explanation and detail, so part of the last post as well as the entirety of this one will be dedicated to finishing Chapter 3.
CHAPTER THREE: ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE (Continued)
Chapter three begins to explicitly define the structure of an organization practicing Holacracy. In Part One of this review, I talked about the first three sections: “Natures Structure,” “Roles and Accountabilities,” and “Differentiating Between Role and Soul.” So now that we’ve seen the benefits, an organization can realize by organizing in a more “organic” way. We’ve also seen the benefits of explicitly defining roles and separating those roles from the people performing them. Now let’s dive into how precisely to accomplish that. It is important to note that the goal of this review is to provide a high-level overview of these structures; therefore, it will not provide all of the detail from the book. If the theories presented here are interesting to you, I recommend grabbing a copy of the book.
In a previous section, comparisons were made between an organization practicing Holacracy and a living organism. In order to continue that metaphor, it’s natural to want to think of circles as “cells,” but that isn’t a completely accurate depiction. A circle is better defined as any group of roles, or other circles. There isn’t a direct biological comparison that can be made. I’ll attempt to try to continue it for the sake of example. In the human body:
- The cells inside of your stomach would belong to the “Stomach” circle.
- The stomach would belong to the “Digestive System” circle.
- The digestive system would belong to the “Body” circle.
In this example, the body is the “super circle,” or in business terms, the circle that contains all the roles and circles within an organization.
The final and most important part of this section goes on to explain that while every circle has a high degree of autonomy (the small intestine doesn’t tell the pancreas how to do its job), it’s important to remember that the needs of other circles must also be met, including the super-circle (organization, or body). While the body and the small intestine don’t tell the pancreas how to do its job, they’re both very dependent on the pancreas to actually do what it’s supposed to.
Lead Links and Rep Links
At least in my experience with this book, after reading about circles, I hit peak skepticism. I had a few questions banging around in my brain, and I was really starting to have doubts about how effective this organizational system could possibly be. Here are some of the questions I was asking myself:
- If nobody is telling a circle how to do its job, how does it know?
- If a role in a circle isn’t performing as it should (or not at all), who is responsible for either correcting that, or stepping up and taking over that role?
- If circles are dependent on one another (in many cases), how do they communicate with one another in order to make sure that everyone’s needs are being met?
Obviously, these are very important things for the health of an organization. Without a solution to those potential problems, there is no possible way for an organization to function, let alone thrive and grow.
This section begins to answer those questions. Lead links and rep links are the answer for the first two questions, and part of the third one. Let’s take a look at what they are and what they do:
The Lead Link is an appointed position (by the circle within which it resides). The responsibility of the Lead Link is to communicate the needs of the super circle to their own circle. If there is a role not being filled within a circle, it is the responsibility of the Lead Link to either fill it themselves or to get it filled as quickly as possible. Another critical responsibility of the Lead Link is what they don’t communicate to their circle. It’s their role to filter out unrelated or unnecessary information. Are accounting and HR having a bunch of tensions they’re trying to resolve? The Lead Link for Production not only doesn’t need to communicate that to their circle, but shouldn’t, unless there is something happening there that will directly affect Production.
The Rep Link is elected by members of their circle, and as indicated by the name of the role, represents the needs and interests of their circle to the super circle. To directly quote the book, one of the primary functions of the Rep Link is “…guarding the autonomy and sustainability of the sub-circle…”. Essentially, if there are tensions within a circle which involve other circles (including the super circle), it is the responsibility of the Rep Link to communicate that in meetings with the other circles, and attempt to help facilitate resolution of those tensions.
The key thing to remember here is that the Lead Link and Rep Link both serve critical functions, ultimately in many ways they could be limited by the fact that they communicate primarily with and within the circle to which they belong. In smaller organizations, this isn’t typically a problem, but one lingering question still remains: What happens if there is a tension between two circles that don’t belong to the same super circle?
This section of the chapter opens by starting to answer the same question that I closed the last section with: “…cross links connect parallel circles, or those otherwise removed from each other in the organization’s holarchy. Adding a cross link between two circles provides a direct channel for processing tensions within one circle that were sensed in another circle, even one far removed in the organizational holarchy…”
Cross Links are considered rare, because in most cases circles with a significant amount of tension tend to belong to the same super circle at some level, and therefore those tensions can be resolved through traditional Lead Link and Rep Link duties. When that is not the case however, Cross Links provide a direct line of communication between two otherwise-unrelated circles “…if two sub-circles have so much integration to do that it would become a distraction for the larger circle…”.
At this point, the first three skeptical questions I had have been answered. There’s more to come, especially when it comes to the daily processes and responsibilities, but together, Lead Links, Rep Links, and Cross Links filled in a very important part of the puzzle for me.
Elected versus Assigned Roles
This is a very short section of the book, but gives a preview into the other two roles which every circle must contain. The Lead Link, which we’ve discussed, is an appointed position. The Rep Link is an elected position. The other two roles which every circle must have (Cross Links are not a required role) are the Facilitator and the Secretary. Both of those roles are elected roles, typically to terms of one year. The length of terms and the requirements for calling for a new election are detailed in the constitution. Every organization uses its own version of the constitution, but the baseline template can be found here. I highly recommend reading through that document, but it may be easier to skim through it at this point, and really take the time to read it in its entirety after finishing the book.
What Circles Do
Another relatively short section, here we see some more “preview” of the next section of the book, which will discuss governance. The previous section gave us a peek into the existence of the Facilitator and Secretary roles, this section gives us a peek into how things actually get done within Holacracy.
Here we learn that resolving tensions tend to fall into one of two categories: those that require taking action (operations), and those that require changing something at an organizational level within the circle (governance). The section then goes on to explain the high-level differences between “Governance Meetings” and “Tactical Meetings”, which are the two types of regular meetings which occur in organizations practicing Holacracy.
Practice Makes Perfect
This section is the authors own summary of the first three chapters. It comes with a single, over-arching sentiment, which I will paraphrase here: “Now you have a fundamental understanding of how this works, but you’ll never truly understand it until you do it.”
Those are my words, not the authors, but based on my experience hearing and learning about Holacracy, and (as you’ll see later) given the fact that eliminating Holacracy from an organization is actually an option that’s very well built into the structure itself, I think that’s a pretty good way of stating it.
The first few chapters of this book seemed to promise a better way of doing business, but anyone who has read any significant number of business literature would tend to approach that type of promise with a healthy amount of skepticism. Chapter 3 has started to outline how some of the roles make the success of the Holacracy organization not only feasible, but increasingly more likely.
For those of you who are interested in finding out more, read the book: Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World, by Brian J. Robertson.
Are you familiar with Holacracy? Have you ever been in an organization that uses it? Let us hear from you. Leave us a message in the Comments section.