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Holacracy's Prime Organizing Principle: All Voices Matter

An unfamiliar management system by Zappos has drawn both accolades and scorn from a bevy of business pundits. While much of the commentary has done little to advance the understanding of how this "bossless" approach works, the pundits have nevertheless piqued the interest of business leaders and workers alike.
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by Rod Collins, Director of Innovation at Optimity Advisors

Over the past year, a new term has been added to the management lexicon: holacracy. The much-publicized adoption of this innovative and unfamiliar management system by Zappos has drawn both accolades and scorn from a bevy of business pundits. While much of the commentary has done little to advance the understanding of how this "bossless" approach works, the pundits have nevertheless piqued the interest of business leaders and workers alike who are starting to question whether a nineteenth century management model is sustainable in a twenty-first century world. After all, as the pace of change continues to rapidly accelerate, is it realistic to believe that a century-old management model will somehow endure while the rest of the world is reshaped by the technologies of the Digital Age?

For Brian Robertson, the creator of holacracy, the answer to this question is an unequivocal "No." In his recent book, Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World, Robertson argues that most of today's organizations are lacking in the capacity to evolve and adapt to fast-moving business markets. That's because the predominant management paradigm is designed to achieve stability and success through centralized planning and control. While plan and control is a blueprint that can work when change is incremental, it can be a fatal scheme when navigating a rapidly changing landscape, as Robertson learned first-hand when he was confronted with a serious life-and-death situation.

A Valuable Business Lesson

Roberson relates the story of how he learned a very valuable business lesson as a student pilot on his first long-distance flight. A few minutes into the flight, he noticed an unfamiliar light on the instrument panel indicating "Low Voltage." Not sure what this indicator meant, he checked all the other gauges and saw that his airspeed and altitude were fine, the course was correct, and he had plenty of gas. With positive readings on what he considered the most important indicators, he decided the low-voltage light couldn't be too serious. This turned out to be a bad decision that almost cost him his life when he was suddenly caught in a storm with no lights and no radio. Miraculously, Robertson found a way to safely land the plane.

As Robertson subsequently reflected on his misadventure, he realized that the near-fatal error he made was a common pattern in most organizations. He recognized that an organization, like a plane, is equipped with sensors in the form of its people, all of whom are capable of sensing the reality around them. Unfortunately, in command-and-control organizations, not everyone's voice matters--some voices are considered more important than others. Consequently, the voices of the supposed less important people, like the low-voltage indicator, can be ignored because they have no vehicle for processing their insights into meaningful action.

With this insight in mind, Robertson decided he would pioneer a new organizational model in the software company he founded and that his prime organizing principle would be the simple premise that all voices matter.

A New Way of Organizing

Robertson called his new way of organizing "holacracy," derived from the term holarchy, coined in the 1960s by the author Arthur Koestler. Rather than relying upon a hierarchy of supervisors, Robertson designed his organization as an interconnected collection of self-organizing teams, known as circles. By eliminating supervisors and embracing self-organization, Robertson assured that no single person would ever have the authority to silence anyone else's voice.

Because there are no bosses to run meetings and give directions, one of the key structures of holacracy is a facilitated meeting framework used for conducting both tactical and governance meetings. Rather than engaging in advocacy debates where listening is rare and talking over each other is common practice, Robertson designed a multi-step meeting process that provides space for participants to voice their thoughts and ideas without being ignored or interrupted to assure that all information is fully available before decisions are made. An essential element of this process is a practice known as "clarifying questions."

Clarifying Questions

Clarifying Questions is a discipline that prevents discussions from being hijacked by advocates who may become locked in a polarized debate. In far too many organizations, it's not uncommon for meetings to quickly morph into hijack experiences in which two or three people dominate the discussion while the remaining participants become mere spectators. Hijacked meetings easily denigrate into a competition of ideas where the focus is on the sport of being right and where the ineffective acting out of passions divides the room into winners and losers--and the losers do not go complacently but rather find ways to thwart the hollow victories once everyone leaves the room. Clarifying questions is a simple practice that can effectively thwart the hijack.

The sole purpose of clarifying questions is to make sure that everyone's point of view is heard. During this time, no reactions or dialogue are allowed because the focus is on making sure that all participants understand the presenter's thoughts and ideas, not whether they agree, disagree, or have a different point of view. In holacracy, there is a separate round for processing reactions and suggestions. This division of clarifying questions from reactions puts in place a simple but powerful dynamic: before we agree or disagree or express another opinion, let's be sure that we've heard what's being said first.

When organizations embrace habits that emphasize the important of listening and understanding, they create climates where everyone knows that all voices matter. And when all voices matter, organizations have access to all the information they need to quickly adapt to the evolving realities of a rapidly changing world.

Rod Collins (@collinsrod) is the Director of Innovation at Optimity Advisors and the author of Wiki Management: A Revolutionary New Model for a Rapidly Changing and Collaborative World (AMACOM Books). He writes for this column on the first Thursday of each month.

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