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Sandy Mamoli has been supporting New Zealand transport ticketing company Snapper in their adoption of holacracy over the last two years. At a recent Agile Welly meetup session she explained what holacracy is, described their journey to date, the benefits they’ve found, and provided advice for others considering holarcacy.
The challenge that Snapper leadership was facing was how to grow without becoming a bureaucracy – they were a 60 person organisation planning on rapid growth taking on new customers from around the world. The leadership team wanted to put a system in place that would retain the innovative nature of the organisation while supporting very rapid growth. She cited a quote from Tony Hsieh of Zappos:
Every time the cize of a city doubles, innovation and productivity increase by 15%. When companies get bigger, innovation and productivity go down.
She stated that Holacracy is a method for creating a self-organizing organisation. It is a
method of decentralised management and organisational governance in which authority and decision-making are distributed throughout autonomous, self-organising teams.
The holarcracy.org website says that
Holacracy® is a self-management practice for running purpose-driven, responsive companies. By empowering people to make meaningful decisions and drive change, the Holacracy practice unleashes your organization’s untapped power to pursue its purpose in the world.
When they first explored the idea of Holacracy, the Snapper leadership was sceptical but curious and prepared to experiment. CEO Miki Szikszai said that it sounds almost cultish – scientology meets agile meets palio meets crossfit, however they were encouraged by the Zappos story and wanted to try and see if it could work for them.
The fundamental unit of holacracy is the circle – the term for a completely self-organising team. There is a cascading structure of circles within circles, described as a hierarchy of purpose, not people. Each circle is entirely responsible for achieving the mission it is defined for within the constraints identified with the mission. In order to support the information flow each circle has a member who represents their needs on the circle above them; this role has full voting rights on the decisions the higher circle makes and ensures that what is done at the higher level supports what is needed at the lower level. This structure of feedback loops is key to allowing true autonomy and retaining alignment in the circles.
Roles are defined in a very granular way – they are not job descriptions, but micro-descriptions of all work that needs to be accomplished within the organisation. By defining the work at a very detailed level, people are collaboratively assigned roles that fit them the best and which provide their circle with what is needed to accomplish their mission. She said that identifying these roles was one of the most tedious aspects of the transition, but absolutely necessary for success. Roles are publicised, people dynamically take on the roles which are needed at the time and which align with their interests.
Within a circle there are some strict protocols which support the process. At first these protocols felt strange and some of the meeting rules didn’t align with Snapper’s culture. The followed them rigidly at first, and after they had time to become confident in the process they adapted some of the rules to be more aligned with the organisation culture.
An important aspect of the decision making process is the concept of consent rather than consensus. A consent-based approach errs on the side of action, whereas consensus often results in inaction, as people struggle to reach full agreement.
Two years in Snapper is happy with holacracy; the whole organisation is now a set of circles, people are more engaged and they collaborate better than they did beforehand. She emphasised that adopting holacracy will not fundamentally change the organisation culture – it will emphasize what is already there. In Snapper’s case they were already an agile organisation, with cross-functional teams and a culture of collaboration and trust – holacracy reinforces this culture and aligns well for such an organisation.
She was clear that without such an underlying culture it is quite likely that holacracy could be harmful to an organisation, so fix the culture first.