“If you were an anthropologist from the future and jumped into this time in history, our ways of working would feel byzantine,” Brian Robertson declared before a group of business leaders in Amsterdam last fall. Robertson, a self-taught software engineer and organizational design guru, is the cofounder of HolacracyOne, a consultancy that promises to make it easy for companies to run more efficiently—without managers.
At the front of the room that day at Zoku Amsterdam, a hotel and co-working space, Robertson’s years of mindfulness practice were on display. He was intensely present.
Although he’s conducted hundreds of trainings in the last decade, relaying essentially the same message to companies including Google and Amazon-owned Zappos, Robertson, approaching 40 and dressed casually in dark jeans and a navy polo, spoke about transforming work with the enthusiasm of someone who is just getting started.
The energy, combined with a strong sales pitch, makes Robertson a convincing businessman. He has to be, given the complexity of the idea he’s trying to sell. Working within a holacracy feels unnatural, compared to the way most companies are run. It involves forgoing one’s job title, taking complete ownership of one’s career development, and engaging with all colleagues as equals—transcending what Robertson views as outdated paradigms of power. Indeed, holacracy is designed to completely upend traditional hierarchy and replace it with a new structure that decentralizes power, essentially making everyone a CEO.
“Most workplaces are co-dependent environments with a disempowering parent-child dynamic,” said Robertson. The alternative he recommends is an extreme departure from that. “There is no deeper level change than this,” he stressed to the leaders, who had flown in from all corners of the world, including Shanghai, Warsaw, and Kansas City. “It requires high maturity to pull this off.”
Holacracy is derivative of other systems intended to increase adaptability within workplaces, like the popular Agile software development process, except that it’s far more radical.
The philosophy behind holacracy—that power needs to be distributed throughout the network— makes intuitive sense, particularly in the age of emerging blockchain technology. Robertson, an early cryptocurrency investor and a libertarian, isn’t shy about his frustration with the US political system and his vision for holacracy’s potential to spread from business and eventually inform a new set of principles to govern states and territories.
Societal holacracy is clearly a vast leap, but as a new system of organizational design, it is winning fans. HolacracyOne counts a few hundred companies as clients and estimates that there are about 1,000 organizations around the world that have adopted its methods. Google, Ernst & Young, and Dubai governmental agency KHDA have all experimented with holacracy, with varying degrees of success.
But there’s little empirical evidence of the program’s effectiveness—and on that bright morning in Amsterdam, the HolacracyOne trainees were looking for proof. They had paid several thousand dollars to attend the event, and companies like theirs paid anywhere from a few thousand to upwards of seven figures for HolacracyOne’s services.
The group was especially curious about what was happening inside Zappos, the online shoe retailer that implemented the system five years ago and has publicly struggled with its execution. They also wanted to know what happened to former HolacracyOne client Medium, whose CEO, Ev Williams, a cofounder of Twitter, had been a staunch holacracy evangelist before announcing his company’s departure from the system. In other words, they were trying to get clarity on the questions that the business world has been asking ever since Robertson began touting his big idea: Is holacracy the answer to equipping companies for the future of work? And if holacracy is so great, why do so many people seem to hate it?
To answer these questions, it is instructive to first look at the idea’s original incubator, Robertson’s failed startup Ternary Software.
The dot-com boom of the late 1990s infused young 20-somethings like Robertson with a contagious idealism, a sense of being able to change the world through technology. In 2001, fed up with the bureaucracy at software company ReviewNet where he was chief technology officer, Robertson struck out on his own. He saw an opportunity to capitalize on a product offering from ReviewNet and co-founded Ternary Software with his wife, Alexia Bowers.
When they first met at a wedding in Florida in 1998, Bowers was in graduate school studying neuroscience. She was struck by Robertson’s resting smile. “He was very sure of himself,” Bowers recalls. Robertson taught himself to code at age six and taught programming classes by the age of 13. A high school dropout, he talked his way into technical college. Once he was launched in the corporate world, it didn’t take long for Robertson to feel he had hit the upper limits of authority. By age 21, he was ready to start his own venture where he could call the shots.
The two hired a handful of developers and began working out of their kitchen in the Philadelphia borough of Downingtown, Pennsylvania. Ternary provided software development services, primarily to young startup clients like itself. As the company grew and eventually moved into office space, Robertson began experimenting with the Agile process of software development and its focus on iterative progress and team-based collaboration.
It worked internally at Ternary, and customers were happy. The company thrived. It made it onto the Philly 100 list as one of the fastest-growing companies in Philadelphia and was recognized as a great place to work, “embracing the full human spirit in the workplace.” A former employee, Wade Lee, says that one of Robertson’s superpowers is his ability to attract top talent around a compelling mission. At Ternary, Robertson had built something to be proud of, and his team shared in his success.
Robertson was constantly reading books about organizational design and psychology, and began tinkering with new ways to run his company. He drew inspiration from The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, Seeing Systems by Barry Oshry, and Linda Berens’ personality typecasting. He was particularly taken with David Allen’s productivity formula, Getting Things Done (GTD), which is influenced in part by Zen Buddhist mindfulness principles, and became enamored with the idea of creating a “mind-like-water” efficiency at an organizational level—clearing one’s mind of distractions so one can be as objective and as adaptive as possible. “He was always reading a book, learning about a new model,” says Bowers.
When Robertson came across sociocracy, a consensus-driven model of work pioneered by Gerard Endenberg at his electrical company in the Netherlands, he traveled there to meet with him. Soon after, he began implementing sociocracy’s core ideas at Ternary.
Eventually, he crafted a system that built upon the best ideas he’d learned of. He called it “holacracy,” inspired by the term “holon,” coined by author Arthur Koestler in his book The Ghost in the Machine to describe something that is simultaneously whole and part of a greater whole.
Robertson was influenced by philosopher Ken Wilber, who used the concept of “holons” to inform his understanding of evolving human consciousness with his Integral Theory, a “meta-theory” that maps out the process of individual and collective transformation.
Intrigued by Wilber’s research on complex systems and human behavior, Robertson became interested in societal governance and “what you might call working together in anarchy.” Through that lens, holacracy could be viewed as a blueprint for a state of anarchy. “It’s not total structure-less chaos,” he clarified. “The original meaning of the Greek word ‘anarchy’ was a ‘system without rulers,’ but not without rules. … A rule system that allows you to operate without rulers, but still with clear structure, clear boundaries.”
Robertson continued to test new ideas on his employees, essentially treating Ternary as a laboratory. Software developer Gareth Powell remembers spending Friday nights with Robertson poring over books and theorizing over dinner how they could apply the frameworks to the organizational design of Ternary. Powell didn’t appreciate the hours devoted to meetings and Robertson’s theorizing. He recalled one instance when he invested a day testing what he later realized was merely a thought experiment from Robertson, with no application for the work at hand. “Brian claimed that it was a joke to get people to oppose it through holacracy,” says Powell.
Work soon became a series of never-ending meetings and experimentation. Employees grew frustrated as they struggled to understand the connection between Robertson’s ideas and their work. “His sandbox was our life,” says early Ternary employee Patrick Gallen. “We were focused so much on how we were working, we were failing our customers.”
One Sunday, Robertson brought everyone into the office to redefine Ternary’s mission and compel his employees to commit to his experimentation with new methods for working and what would eventually become his new system of holacracy. In a moment of emotional exhaustion, he told staff that it was as if he were at the top of a mountain, and no one else could quite see what he saw, using a metaphor he learned from Wilber.
“He actually explained to the group that most of us were all sitting at the lower base of the mountain, and had a highly restricted view, which necessarily limited our perspectives,” says former employee Lee. “But Brian, sitting atop the mountain, could see and understand all perspectives.”
During a lunch break, Lee was approached by a colleague. “Brian didn’t play any team sports, did he?” the colleague asked.
Robertson became increasingly disconnected from his employees and began to dislike his job. He was drawn to a self-development community led by Wilber, who had developed something of a cult following. (He has influenced a number of thought leaders including the management thinker Frederic Laloux and Rob Bell, former megachurch pastor best known for his theologically provocative Love Wins.)
At an Integral conference in 2006, amidst a sea of Wilber’s spiritual devotees, Robertson found serial entrepreneur Tom Thomison, an affable man sporting silver hair. His two-and-a-half decades of business experience stood in contrast to Robertson’s youthful exuberance.
The two decided to join forces to further develop holacracy. Thomison also joined the Ternary board. They made a strong team: Robertson’s post-conventional wisdom paired with Thomison’s conventional business experience—competing with large management consultancies, advising executives and boards, and raising capital—gave them a competitive edge. They committed to developing a “social technology” to support the rapid tech-induced changes occurring in workplaces. At that time, society was at an inflection point: The first iPhone was not yet in the hands of consumers, and Facebook was just beginning to gain traction on college campuses. The entrepreneurs were prescient in anticipating that this next wave of emerging technology would catalyze an evolution in human behavior and social organization.
Thomison encouraged Robertson to take a sabbatical from Ternary to focus on further developing holacracy and take a break from being CEO. Robertson hired the Integral Institute’s former CEO, Steve Frazee, to figure out what to do with Ternary.
Meanwhile, Robertson filed for a patent with the US Patent & Trademark Office to lock down part of the organizational algorithm he and Thomison would eventually finalize with the first “holacracy constitution.” A ruling from the US Supreme Court about process patents essentially rendered his application obsolete, but that didn’t stop Robertson from closely guarding his emerging intellectual property. He began marketing his new management method, and in 2007, the Wall Street Journal profiled Ternary for its novel ways of working.
By this point, the company was struggling. Frazee proposed re-implementing more traditional management practices, but Robertson rejected his plan because it didn’t mesh with holacracy. When Frazee’s contract was up, Robertson replaced him with another full-time CEO, but it didn’t change Ternary’s trajectory. The company shut its doors in 2008. Robertson’s excessive experimentation played a role; so did the lack of product demand in the depths of the recession.
“I was a young arrogant leader in my 20s,” says Robertson, who is surprisingly open about the way his experiments alienated his former employees. Thomison was the first to hold up an uncomfortable mirror to Robertson, and pushed him to write down more rules of the system. “I realized I was still holding onto power and using the system to my advantage,” says Robertson.
After Ternary folded, Robertson gave holacracy his full attention. Bowers, who had remained at Ternary, re-joined her husband and once again they worked out of their home, holding very early training sessions in their living room, while Thomison worked remotely from his base in Houston. To gain traction, the trio did not immediately seek paying customers. Instead, they targeted folks in Wilber’s self-development community—“inspired individuals,” as Bowers refers to them. The idea was to focus on a community of people who were already excited about unconventional ways of working, rather than pitching executives for whom the traditional system seemed to be working.
“A lot of people who came to our training were not in a position to do this at their organization,” Bowers recalls. “The cash flow situation took a while to start up.” To drum up business, Robertson spoke at conferences and also found success with a spiritual community called EnlightenNext.
After several years in relative obscurity, Robertson and Thomison made their first important sale to Allen in 2011. But HolacracyOne’s real big break came from a lunch meeting between Allen and Williams, the Twitter cofounder, who was then building a new publishing site called Medium. “Ev was frustrated with Silicon Valley’s dog-eat-dog culture,” Allen said. “It’s different from his DNA.” He convinced Williams to give holacracy a shot.
Williams is among a subset of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who joined the growing mindfulness movement there. He is a big fan of GTD, and in holacracy, he saw a way to apply its principles more directly to a company’s design. It also captured the imagination of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who first heard Robertson speak at the 2012 Conscious Capitalism CEO Summit in Austin, Texas. (The gathering was drawing a growing number of Silicon Valley millionaires, driven by their collective appetite for innovation and a desire to appease their existential angst.)
Hsieh tracked Robertson down after the talk. Holacracy seemed to be the “corporate penicillin” he was looking for, as he would later explain to an advisor. Like Williams, Hsieh was a serial entrepreneur on his own personal odyssey. He was prepared to take the risk of experimenting on his company and its 1,500 employees.
A few months later, Quartz published an article about Zappos’s radical reorganization, titled “Zappos is going Holacratic: no job titles, no managers, no hierarchy.” Overnight, the term “holacracy” was everywhere—CNN, The BBC, The New York Times. The story and related coverage attracted interest from around the world, and led to new business opportunities for HolacracyOne. Thanks to the Zappos deal and its barrage of publicity, Robertson was suddenly sharing stages on the conference circuit with thought leaders like bestselling author Brene Brown. The exposure also attracted even bigger-name clients, like Google.
One evening in fall 2015, Robertson attended a party at Hsieh’s airstream trailer park in downtown Las Vegas, where Zappos is headquartered. It was an open mic night, where guests could perform while drinks flowed from the bar. Robertson stood at the back, at the high tables, appearing somewhat a fish out of water in buttoned-up attire and looking like the young engineer he was in his 20s. He shared that he was particularly excited about a new client, Google. A director had heard Robertson speak at a Google leadership summit and wanted to see how the concept would work with the 75-person Google Cloud team, which was dealing with growing complexity.
Googler Brian Haney, a systems engineer and self-identified program “un-manager,” was among those to champion the effort. Inspired by Robertson’s pitch, he wanted to bring back “a system of empowerment” to the company he had joined a decade earlier.
Robertson’s excitement was short lived. Three months later, in 2016, the Google Cloud team underwent a minor reorganization and abandoned holacracy after a new team leader “de-ratified” the operating system. Haney regrets not capturing metrics, or articulating a clearer objective early on. “Google has a very effective team culture,” he says. “Holacracy is designed to work in a dysfunctional organization, which Google most definitely is not. So my teammates are asking, ‘Why are we doing that? We’re not broken.’” Following the set meeting format prescribed by holacracy felt awkward for members of the Cloud team, as it does for most everyone, especially in the beginning. “The structure that holacracy imposed was foreign to our habit of open discussion,” he said.
The experiment didn’t deter Haney, who is working on developing self-management principles for Googlers. He’s writing a book, tentatively titled Hacking Holacracy, which deconstructs and reconstructs aspects of the system and applies them with more moderation. “Holacracy as a monolith is very difficult,” Haney explains. “It’s the equivalent of climbing straight up a mountain with no switchbacks. There’s a trail on the other side of the mountain that’s a whole lot easier. But you can take your time to get there.”
Holacracy is initially experienced as a series of awkward meetings with rules for governing behavior. The system replaces “freewheeling” cultures by exposing the political dynamics of an organization—all that was previously unseen is now apparent, and documented in HolacracyOne’s workplace management software Glassfrog. The level of transparency in holacracy can feel akin to the way Ray Dalio famously managed Bridgewater Associates (captured in his bestselling 2017 book Principles); Robertson and Dalio are just using different approaches to achieving radical transparency. Some describe holacracy as a bitter medicine. It’s the strict, no-sugar cleanse version of self-organization. Other companies prefer to take it more slowly, and piecemeal. “It’s more about fit than about better or worse,” says Harvard’s Michael Lee. “Certain systems work better for certain organizations and certain types.”
Hsieh, meanwhile, was moving full steam ahead with his plan to implement holacracy at Zappos, a process that was proving rocky. To some Zapponians, it felt as if their workplace was being “gamified,” that they were working within a computer operating system.
“In the beginning, you feel that the human element is lost completely,” Jamie Naughton, Hsieh’s chief of staff, told Quartz previously. “I remember sitting in meetings wanting to scream at the founder of holacracy, ‘You don’t get it, you don’t get it at all!’ He said, ‘You’ve got to trust the process.’ And I thought, ‘This sucks.’ You just have to wait your turn to speak your opinion.”
Two years after adopting the system, Hsieh gave his employees an ultimatum to either commit to holacracy or take a buyout offer. A third of Zappos’s 1,500 employees walked out the door. “It takes a lot of fortitude as a leader to pull that off,” observes Lee.
Bowers expressed a similar sentiment as Lee, reflecting on her husband and other innovators like Hsieh: “Aren’t pioneers the ones with arrows on their backs?”
Zappos is still focused on becoming a more decentralized organization, albeit out of the glare of the media spotlight. Integrating its lessons from holacracy, it’s currently experimenting with a new “marketplace” model, where employees are given even more incentives to operate as entrepreneurs. The company appears to be distancing itself from the dogmatic aspects of holacracy that tested employee morale early on.
During this period of rapid growth for holacracy, other practitioners aired their concerns publicly. Mike Arauz, formerly a partner with boutique management consultancy UnderCurrent, wrote a 2014 story for TechCrunch titled, “My company adopted a Holacracy. It kind of sucked.” He explained that:
“For anyone with an even minor aversion to dogma and blind faith, holacracy will turn you off. Best case scenario, you’ll be a skeptic and a laggard. Worst case, you’ll think your co-workers are trying to get you to join a cult.
When we started, the relentless doublespeak made me feel like I was living in George Orwell’s take on the modern workplace. Why are we saying ‘circle’ when we mean team? Why are we saying ‘tension’ when we just mean something we want to fix.”
Another Undercurrent consultant, Bud Caddell, was quoted describing holacracy as the “management equivalent of Dungeons & Dragons,” in a critique in Forbes by Jurgen Appelo, titled, “Holacracy is fundamentally broken.”
UnderCurrent dissolved under new management at Quirky as it fell into bankruptcy. Arauz and his former colleagues went on to iterate on what they learned operating as a holacracy and sell variations to corporate clients. Their new management consultancy, August, even developed its own constitution—a nod to Robertson and the system he had built.
In June 2015, Robertson published his first book, Holacracy: A new management system for a rapidly changing world. It has received upwards of 700 ratings on Goodreads with an average 3.68 rating—impressive for a nuts-and-bolts New Age management book. Reviews capture both the appeal of holacracy and its downsides:
“It is well written and persuasive. It is also a dangerous management system that can undermine a company, as it did with mine when we tried to implement it. It nearly brought us down.”
“An interesting perspective on a new way of work. My personal opinion is it works best for … robots, than for people.”
“For Brian Robertson to create Holacracy is nothing short of heroic, and probably quixotic. The sheer ambition of creating a ‘new operating system’ for how to organize and run an organization is incredible. Will it work? Maybe.”
Meanwhile, the Economist magazine poked at “The holes in Holacracy,” noting that “past attempts to democratise decision-making have not been notably successful.” The Economist quoted Stanford University’s Jeffrey Pfeffer, who highlighted a paradox: “These ideas tend to be introduced by benign-dictator CEOs who are the only thing stopping the firm reverting to a traditional hierarchy.”
A frustrated Bowers typed up and published a blog post for Medium titled, “Five Misconceptions of Holacracy,” an effort to push back and “up the level of the conversation” about holacracy. She wrote that contrary to public opinion, the system is not “structureless and chaotic,” and it is also not “a silver bullet.” Similarly, Robertson wrote a Medium story titled the “History of Holacracy,” intended to clear up confusion around the origins of the system, where he gave due credit to other frameworks and thinkers like sociocracy founder Endenberg.
In spring 2016, Medium publicly stepped away from holacracy. In a blog post on its platform, Andy Doyle, former head of operations for Medium, wrote that “the system had begun to exert a small but persistent tax on both our effectiveness, and our sense of connection to each other. For us, Holacracy was getting in the way of the work.”
Despite these public setbacks in the US, holacracy continued to gain momentum elsewhere. It has made the most progress in Europe, and the Netherlands specifically, and Robertson is also making inroads in southeast Asia. He points to a more collectivist mindset and more openness to integrating multiple perspectives in places like the Netherlands, whereas in the US, the focus is strongly on individual achievement and aggrandizement of the ego. Silicon Valley is known for its “heroic” leadership, and American culture mythologizes its startup founders—a posturing that is antithetical to holacracy, which prioritizes the health of the overall system over the lone contributor.
“There’s a lot of self-work on the leader’s part to really disrupt all of this,” Robertson explained. “The one thing I had to give up was my ability to roll over everyone with my ego and drive things just because I want them this way.” The system is specifically designed to demand a new type of leader.
Back at the conference in Amsterdam, Robertson led business leaders through a simulation to understand how holacracy works in practice. Members took on roles at a fictional healthcare company, Hygean, and were given a brief description of the company, its mission, and its business goals. Each person was given a laminated template with instructions on how to conduct “tactical” and “governance” meetings, shorthand for operational and strategic meetings.
Tactical meetings are the equivalent of weekly status meetings. They begin with members going around the circle with brief check-ins: “The check-in round is a mindfulness practice: tune in yourself, let go of distractions, get present,” Robertson instructed the group. That’s followed by project updates and a discussion of the organization of work. Members were encouraged throughout to raise any “tensions,” a word interpreted neutrally by holacracy that simply indicates a gap between reality and a better solution. (Medium found high value in the efficiency of tactical meetings; it’s the easiest part of holacracy to adopt.)
Training attendees were given instructions to complete work at Hygean for the month of January, so to speak, using the information they had about their roles and rules for engagement. The biggest initial hurdle was determining who had the authority to make critical decisions, like the pricing of Hygean’s services. What would be a natural process at a traditional company was questioned and debated. And until explicit rules and policies were put in place, anyone had the authority to act as a “heroic” entrepreneur if the situation called for it. Robertson equates exercising this kind of agency to “being a Ferrari”—delivering a dopamine rush, but not a good long-term strategy.
“But Brian, it feels good to be heroic!” said a management consultant from Germany.
Robertson pushed back, emphasizing that the idea is for everyone to “be CEO of their role,” which provides a similar autonomy.
“But it’s really awkward,” another attendee piped in, referring to the meeting format.
“It should be awkward,” Robertson immediately responded. “—until it isn’t. When you get the intuitive nature of the game, you experience flow.”
The idea of acting “as CEO” of one’s role inspired a number of questions. Among them was, “How do you manage money?” That was the question asked by Eberling Wolfgang, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Applied Sciences in Switzerland. If there are no teams with budgets, how does a person determine what they can spend?
“I don’t know,” Robertson responded, as he often would that week, frustrating the group. “Sounds like a tension.” HolacracyOne prides itself on providing a basic framework that doesn’t offer solutions for universal workplace functions like hiring or firing (perhaps that’s because the system is designed to scale beyond the workplace). Pausing, Robertson then shared how HolacracyOne handles budgets. “At our company we have a Slack channel and give people 48 hours to post something like, ‘As X role, I intend to spend X on Y.’” For years, he approved every expense.
During another breakout session, attendees were asked to role-play “governance” meetings, meant to lead groups through a decision-making process. A presenter offers a proposal; the group asks clarifying questions and shares reactions. There’s an opportunity for the presenter to amend and clarify the proposal, and a round where the group can make objections, and either accept or reject the proposal. The gating question, dutifully read from the conference attendees’ laminated cards: “Do you see any reason why adopting this proposal causes harm; objection or no objection?”
When the attendees regrouped, many expressed frustration at the long and tedious process. Robertson, guardian of the holacracy constitution, pointed out that “discussing a tension for 75 minutes upfront is better than two years of unresolved tension, implicit dynamics, impacting work rather than addressing it.”
Through the process of making the power structure clear, holacracy quickly exposes a company’s shadow power structure—the unspoken and implicit rules of engagement. Robertson acknowledged that this has been an obstacle at Zappos. He told the story of how during training, a Zappos employee presciently observed that holacracy would interfere with the company’s celebrated culture, “and they were right.” Although Zappos is no longer an active HolacracyOne coaching client, Robertson maintained that the company was nonetheless right on track and its struggles are all part of the process.
During a break between sessions, two co-founders of a mental health clinic, both wearing sportcoats, debated the bottom-line value of holacracy. They had just sold their clinic to a large health-care provider in the Netherlands that runs on holacracy. They were open to the new system, but also wanted to see more metrics. “If there is data about how holacracy affects results—the bottom line—I’d love to see it,” one remarked.
Determining the impact of holacracy on a company’s bottom line is difficult. There are many variables that affect a company’s performance under holacracy. But Allen says there is only one way to measure impact, articulating HolacracyOne’s mission: “Does it serve the company’s purpose?” After adopting holacracy in 2011, Allen slashed his staff from 48 to six employees. He found outside licensees to handle much of the work and takes pride in his lean operation—one that more clearly articulates his consultancy’s purpose, which is to evangelize the GTD philosophy around the world.
The self-help aspect of holacracy is appealing to many of its practitioners. After a day of training, attendees began sharing what brought them there, over drinks on the rooftop terrace overlooking the city. Some were sent on behalf of their companies, others fronted the expensive ticket themselves, perceiving the event as a course in self-development.
As the sun set over Amsterdam, the group uncorked a few bottles of Merlot and discussed Frederic Laloux’s tome, Reinventing Organizations, defacto required reading for attendees. Laloux put in words the soul ache that many have been experiencing, though unable to articulate: That there is a better way to run companies. Power can be decentralized. Laloux describes a global shift in human consciousness—profoundly inspired by Wilber’s Integral theory— that is giving way to a new type of organization: dynamic, flexible, and autonomous. His book is not considered merely aspirational; it is a clarion call to doing things differently and creating a new world. Attending training is an opportunity to spend time with like-minded individuals.
“I would like for healing and work to be the same,” said Konrad Olesiewicz, a business owner and “Purpose & Flow” coach from Warsaw. He later went on to explain that he’s exploring the intersection of business and spirituality because he sees that space as a means to accessing a greater collective intelligence for solving the world’s most complex problems. He views holacracy as a tool to help him conduct that exploration and channel his own creativity, while forcing him to confront the “blocks” to creativity. “Since once you start opening emotionally to host ‘rich information’ in your body,” Olesiewicz explained, “a lot of stored up stuff and trauma will most probably start coming out.”
That is why former Zappos employee Alexis Gonzales-Black, who co-led the company’s holacracy rollout, describes the system as “beautiful and awful.” The intense self-development aspect of holacracy can be overwhelming.
Ewa Bocian, a 35-year-old Polish consultant who works for organizational design consultancy Dwarfs & Giants, shared with the group that she was “on the spiritual path” when she came across holacracy. “If you want to do any kind of self management, you need to trust,” she reflected. “Trust people, trust that a human being has talents, that people are really willing to take part in success, that they have good intentions and are interested in doing things right.”
Jan Willem van Crevel, formerly COO of AIMMS (the company has since done away with titles), a Netherlands-based firm with 55 employees and offices in Bellevue, Shanghai, and Singapore, shared that his organization is about a year and a half into the holacracy rollout. He expressed mixed feelings about the journey; he entered a season of soul searching when he gave up his title and a range of managerial duties. Many who have been exposed to holacracy agree that it’s not for the faint of heart. It requires people to face their ego in the mirror—a daunting and uncomfortable process that many of us don’t engage in unless we’re confronted with a failure or major life obstacle. And that’s precisely why so many people who do not willingly choose it hate it.
Often, entrepreneurs are the ones who are forced to face their egos in the mirrors in order to address their weaknesses; failure to do so can mean failure of one’s enterprise. (Executive coach Jerry Colonna does an excellent job of explaining this phenomena in a popular StartUp podcast about addressing one’s shadow self.) Holacracy challenges that notion entirely; it’s essentially corporate-mandated self-development that asks every employee to operate with the fearlessness of an entrepreneur.
Holacracy is “so difficult and so complex,” said Harvard’s Lee. “One of the things that I think is underappreciated is that holacracy and systems of self-management introduce a lot of complexity into the organization. That complexity can be overwhelming. Hierarchy is very simple. Some argue [holacracy] requires greater levels of consciousness to deal with complexity.” This is brilliantly embedded into holacracy’s design: the system’s code recognizes that our traditional ways of working tend to reward unconsciousness and it seeks to address this through its (seemingly arbitrary) rules and bylaws.
Robertson’s personal development certainly seems to have been propelled by holacracy. Through their decade of working together, Thomison says he has seen his partner evolve. “It’s a trajectory that healthy humans tend to follow,” says Thomison, who has since gone on to found Encode, which supports decentralized management structures like holacracy. “People tend to have a bigger embrace from self-interest to broader interest. That’s certainly true of Brian.” Bowers also describes more groundedness in her husband and business partner.
“In my younger years, I was almost addicted to the control,” Robertson concedes. “It was an internal struggle.”
An element of holacracy that is particularly refreshing is its acknowledgement of the natural process of human evolution. People are not static; we make mistakes, especially when we have the courage to take risks. Our personalities and competencies evolve with time. Holacracy asks its participants to practice forgiveness and grace along the way. This is more easily accomplished when people sit long enough to acknowledge their coworkers’ humanity. It’s a way of being in the world that more leaders are embracing, like Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who champions NVC (“Nonviolent Communication”), a pioneering framework for conflict resolution that is not so dissimilar from holacracy’s tension-resolution and integrative decision-making processes.
Ultimately, the greatest value of holacracy may be the idea of holacracy itself. It may not work for every company, but its premise is revolutionary. In essence, it asks for more soulfulness at work—for all of us, no matter our job title, to show up with more intentionality every day. It asks for us to engage with the terrifying act of transcending our egos.
“Look at the stuff that gets in the way of humans connecting fully as humans,” says Robertson. “It’s the politics, bureaucracy—instead of us being vulnerable, authentic creatures that fail. Let’s get a lot of that out of the way.”
Aimee Groth is the author of The Kingdom of Happiness: Inside Tony Hsieh’s Zapponian Utopia, first published in 2017 by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.