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The story of the man who’s flattening the world of corporate hierarchies

At age six, Brian Robertson taught himself to code. Throughout his childhood, he devoted the equivalent of a full-time job to coding. By age 13, he started a small business teaching programming on an early online network.

“Eventually the network staff found out their customers really liked the online course offering, and they created a formal program and hired me to teach programming in it a few hours per week,” he says. “They never found out I was 13.”

Now, as the co-founder of management consultancy HolacracyOne, Robertson, 35, advises companies on how to integrate Holacracy, a “self-governing” operating system without managers, job titles, and traditional hierarchy.

At a recent training session in downtown Las Vegas, he told Zappos: “Most of what I’m experiencing happens in a state of anarchy. The Greek root word [anarkhos] means without rulers. Holacracy is a rule system for anarchy.”

He held up a small blue spiral notebook titled the Holacracy Constitution. “This is the constitution for organizations. Think about it this way: What are your favorite board games?”

“Monopoly, Risk,” said Fred Mossler, whose longtime title at Zappos is “No Title,” so he can work across a variety of departments. He was sitting at one of the circular tables at the back of the room.

Robertson nodded. “When the rules make sense, you can enjoy the game.” When they don’t, as with traditional corporate bureaucracy, it’s time to knock the pieces off the board and re-write the rules.

And that’s exactly what Robertson did.

After dropping out of a magnet high school for science and engineering, Robertson talked his way into the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, but he didn’t last long there, either. At 18, he joined aerospace company Analytical Graphics and quickly worked his way up to lead the core architecture team. Even though it was a great company to work for, he still felt stifled by the system.

“I was often frustrated when I sensed something that wasn’t working or could be improved, only to find there wasn’t much I could do with that awareness,” he writes in his forthcoming book, currently titled HOLACRACY: Evolution for Organizations, to be released in a few months. “I wanted to process that sense I had into meaningful change. Yet I routinely encountered big obstacles to doing so.”

He briefly took a CTO position with a dot com startup, ReviewNet, before going out on his own in 2001. He founded Ternary Software with the sole purpose of finding a better way to run a company. “It was a laboratory,” he says. “I set out to solve the question, ‘What gets in the way of someone implementing an idea?’ And more broadly, processing whatever someone senses that could be better.”

Robertson was attracted to agile software development, a system that responds to feedback from customers, developers and other stakeholders, and hinges on the concept of self-organizing teams. He also experimented with sociocracy and its system for setting policy through structured consensus, which he later moved away from. But it was the work of philosopher Ken Wilber, who wrote about holarchies, the term used to describe overarching systems that are made up of other self-organizing systems or entities (“holons”) that he was eventually drawn to.

“Holarchies are a different way of structuring an entity,” says Robertson. “They’re the fundamental building block of reality. Holacracy is capturing a broader pattern. There’s nothing sacred about what we’re doing. I don’t feel like we’re inventing Holacracy. We’re capturing it concretely in a set of rules. Self-governance is how nature scales.”

Although he distances himself from Wilber’s spiritual devotees, he spent time with people who worked for the philosopher’s non-profit, the Integral Institute. In fact, Robertson met serial entrepreneur Tom Thomison at an integral theory gathering in 2006, and together they crystalized his experimental ideas for Holacracy into HolacracyOne.

Ternary didn’t weather the recession, but Robertson said the company accomplished what it set out to do: develop a new system for running a company. In its last few months, Ternary operated on Holacracy v.9 (its beta version).

One of the biggest differences between Holacracy and other flat management styles is that there’s a constitution and a governance process that determines how meetings are run, and ultimately, defines how power is allocated through roles. Here’s the article on processing tensions from the Holacracy Constitution, with plain English to the right:

Screen Shot 2014-01-15 at 10.49.12 AM

“Tom was getting frustrated with me just making up new and clarified rules whenever I didn’t like something he was doing and just declaring, ‘that’s Holacracy!’” says Robertson. “He helped me see that when the rules were just held in my head and I was the only authority on them, it wasn’t really different from me being the heroic empowering leader.”

One of Holacracy’s core principles is moving past the “heroic leader,” says Thomison. “It’s about eliminating the ego.”

In the second chapter of his upcoming book, titled “A Shift Of Power,” Robertson writes about what it’s like to operate within a different type of hierarchy:

It comes as a revelation and a challenge for everyone involved. The workers realize that they are no longer just employees following orders. They have real power and authority—and with that comes responsibility. They no longer have a parent-like manager to solve their problems.

“The biggest change is shifting behavior,” he explains. “People are used to playing politics. It’s painful, it’s hard. Holacracy is a hard shift.”

On his website, Holacracy.org, Robertson describes himself as “a recovering CEO—a job he now helps free others from with Holacracy.” He and Thomison have seven additional partners, and bring in most of their revenue through consulting and training. They also have a licensing business and sell support tools online. But most of their growth has been through word of mouth.

A wide range of companies have adopted Holacracy, but the common thread is leaders who are all systems thinkers. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh began his career as a computer programmer; Twitter Co-Founder Evan Williams, who now uses Holacracy to run Medium, also started out coding.

And Hsieh, whose company will be the largest yet to implement the system, has been speaking in similar terms as Robertson for a while now. “I believe that there are emergent properties that come out of things such as a flock of birds,” he said in a 2012 interview with Business Insider. “From a distance it seems like it’s a single organism instead of a lot of individual birds, so the same type of thing probably happens amongst humans or the entire planet that we as humans can’t perceive, just like the cell in the human body doesn’t necessarily perceive the entire human.”

And like other natural systems, Holacracy itself will continue to evolve. “Evolution requires a code, a DNA, that can be varied in search of a better code,” Robertson says. “The constitution serves as that DNA, and until it was encoded that way, it couldn’t truly be evolved through an evolutionary design process.”

Engineers are often stereotyped as introverts who don’t know how to manage a team, but perhaps they just look at human systems in an entirely different way.

You can follow Aimee on Twitter at @AimeeGroth. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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