Extinction Rebellion is using holacracy to scale its international movement

Another self-organized Extinction Rebellion protest for the environment.
Another self-organized Extinction Rebellion protest for the environment.
Image: REUTERS/Javier Barbancho
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One of the defining events of 2019 was Extinction Rebellion, the global protest movement bolstered by activists like Greta Thunberg to make the climate emergency a priority for governments around the world.

Since its founding in 2018, XR, as it’s known, has mobilized thousands of people in dozens of countries, brought sections of London, New York, and Sydney to a standstill, and spawned 3,000 arrests in the UK alone (purposeful arrests are a core part of its strategy).

While the movement has received its share of criticism as it has grown in size and power—namely around its lack of diversity—its sheer numbers and degree of international press coverage point to an enviable level of operational success.

A key to this success? Choosing an effective organizational model early on, informed by the latest management science. XR is a decentralized network designed to resemble a holacracy, an operating structure for self-organization tested by tech companies like Google, Zappos, and Medium. Anyone can join XR so long as they adhere to its 10 core principles and values, including a commitment to nonviolence.

While holacracy, too, has received its share of criticism as it, too, has gained traction, the system is credited for providing a basic framework for effective self-organization. At a holacracy training session at Zappos, the online shoe retailer, in 2013, HolacracyOne co-founder Brian Robertson, who invented the system, described his creation as providing “a rule system for anarchy.”

Extinction Rebellion’s embrace of holacracy makes it the largest-scale use case to date, eclipsing Amazon-owned Zappos’s high-profile trials with holacracy involving 1,500 employees. Like Zappos, which has quietly backed away from certain tenants of the system and has begun to experiment with its own, modified version of holacracy, XR is also taking a broader interpretation of holacracy.

“We’re not dogmatic about using holacracy; it’s an adaptive version,” says Ronan Harrington, a UK political strategist who was personally recruited by XR co-founder Roger Hallam to join the movement.

XR is not formally engaging HolacracyOne’s services. Instead, its leadership has trained itself using online videos and with guidance from advisors like Miki Kashtan, an international teacher of nonviolent communication and former McKinsey consultant Frederic Laloux, whose internationally bestselling book Reinventing Organizations profiles successful self-managed organizations, including HolacracyOne.

Circular logic

The defining feature of a holacracy is its circular hierarchical structure, which is quite different from the static pyramid hierarchies most organizations employ today. The flattened hierarchy, combined with a focus on granular roles over broader job titles, as well as distributed decision-making and clear frameworks for conflict resolution, makes holacracy a more dynamic and scalable option for self-organizing entities like XR.

Reflecting basic holacratic structure, XR has a number of core “circles” that focus on everything from finance and fundraising to legal, tech, and even the nature of self-organizing systems. The core circles send representatives to the main circle, led by XR co-founders Hallam and Gail Bradbrook. Feedback loops run quickly both down- and upstream. Those in core roles are empowered to make decisions as they see fit, so long as they consult with others who have expertise in order to make thoughtful decisions.

More complex decisions involve “integrative decision making,” a process where all proposals need to pass with no objection. When necessary, a rapid-response team makes faster decisions on strategy and other issues.

The movement has learned from the mistakes of Occupy Wall Street, which was weighed down by crowded general assemblies that made decisions by consensus, which quickly became a hindrance to progress. By contrast, holacracy is designed to protect against that kind of gridlock by empowering individuals to act with full sovereignty within the scope of their roles, while retaining a democratic bent through its governance and integrated decision-making processes.

Harrington notes that the average XR protester probably would not even know that they are operating within a holacracy (though the group does hold training sessions on holacracy in various local chapters). “People know [holacracy] by the processes we have,” he explains. “For most people it’s their first experience in a self-organizing system.”

A different approach than Occupy Wall Street

Daniel Thorson, who has explored the concept of societal and ecological collapse through his podcast Emerge: Making Sense of What’s Next, participated in the UK protests this past autumn. While he wasn’t initially aware of XR’s holacratic design, he observed that anyone was empowered to act as they desired, so long as it was in accordance with the movement’s principles. He kept up-to-date on the campaign’s UK strategy through a widely broadcast channel on Telegram, the encrypted messaging service. Transparent information flow is a core tenet of holacracy because it fosters trust, the lynchpin of all effective self-organized systems.

Thorson, who also participated in Occupy Wall Street, was struck by the way XR participants were noticeably more in control of their emotions than the Occupiers were, evidenced by a more cool-headed approach to protesting.

In London’s Trafalgar Square, “you’d come across a sign for therapeutic yoga and sound healing, right next to a table for the scientists of XR, and the Buddhists of XR,” he said, referring to the mixture of the spiritual and the sacred within the context of the protest movement. “At Occupy there would have been antipathy for that.”

On Thorson’s podcast following his visit to the UK, he interviewed Harrington, who pointed out that many XR protesters have done their “shadow” work, that is, healed traumas within themselves so they don’t project dysfunctional conditioning onto others, namely law enforcement.

“They have done inner work on antagonism, so they are projecting less onto the public,” explained Harrington, noting the clear link between self-development and systems transformation. “[When] an activist hasn’t actually processed the rage and the anger that comes from issues with their mothers and fathers, they project that onto the system. And people feel that.”

Thorson adds that the inherent discomfort associated with protesting can easily trigger unhealed emotional wounds. “You can tell where trauma is if you get irritated,” he says. “There are so many opportunities for people to freak out. People were more angry and rageful at Occupy, whereas at XR people are pretty peaceful. It’s more of a festival atmosphere.”

The XR movement itself has its roots in the spiritual. In 2016, Bradbrook attended an ayahuasca ceremony in Costa Rica for activists with the intention of discerning the “codes for social change.” (Ayahuasca is a plant-based medicine thought to have a mind-opening effect.)

Not long after, Bradbrook, a former biophysicist, met Hallam, a former organic farmer who is pursuing a PhD at King’s College London centered on how to create social change; and together they began laying the groundwork for XR. The activists studied notable protest movements in modern history and determined that nonviolence, promoted by the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., has by far been the most effective strategy. Their message was bolstered by the work of Jem Bendell, a professor of sustainability leadership at the University of Cumbria, who published a viral academic paper in July 2018 “discussing the need for deep adaptation in the face of impending ecological collapse.”

Using holacracy as an operating system, they scaled XR globally in relatively fast order, starting with the group’s official founding in October 2018 and accelerating with mass protests in April and October of this year. The campaign has brought attention to the climate emergency, but it is still far from persuading political leaders to meet its demands, which include a commitment by the British government to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025. Based on their academic research, XR’s leaders predict it will take 3.5% of the population getting involved to affect systemic change.

As XR strategizes for its next phase in 2020, it is also integrating lessons Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, which is leaderless out of necessity. “We admire their Bruce Lee, be-like-water approach,” says Harrington, though he is quick to note a core difference between the two is XR’s commitment to non-violence. Either way, he says, “Hong Kong shows us the value of keeping something in the news long enough.”