Aug 292014

Found this article in the Globe and Mail (Say goodbye to hierarchy, hello to holacracy) about the disappearance of hierarchy at some “cool” businesses (such as Zappos). It’s essence is per the following definition:

Holacracy is a social technology or system of organizational governance in which authority and decision-making are distributed throughout a fractal holarchy of self-organizing teams rather than being vested at the top of a hierarchy

Since it’s only been in existence since 2007 and seems to be favoured by new economy, technology-based businesses and not-for-profits, it might be a little early to tell whether there is broad merit in the approach. Having self-contained, self-directed units makes complete sense and aligns with many features of nature and certainly of “Complexity” and “Emergence” theories. I’d say generally I’m in favour with the caveat that there are limits to its relevance.

Take the military, for instance and as a deep-relief example of where hierarchy is necessary. While it makes sense that battalions or platoons or fleets or squadrons, in combat, be enabled with self-direction over their own activities to achieve clear goals (this is fundamental), you can’t run an army that way. That kind of organization needs, at its broadest levels, timely and ongoing coherence in purpose and action fast. Holacracy would tend toward incoherence in the short run, though it might be more valuable and effective in the long run. So, organisations that need to be coherently directed toward a possibly fluid goal with a minimum of evolutionary trial and error as the holocratic parts bump into one another might not be right for this structure.

That generally describes large enterprises of the money making or other variety. But even as I type this I wonder if the issue is not black and white but many shades of grey. That is holocracy at one level does not mean hierarchy at another. Perhaps there is harmonious combination of these two structures that would be generally applicable. Maybe that’s been considered by the creator of the idea and/or its various evangelists, including Ken Wilbur.

The article I’ve tagged makes the point but, truth be told, I didn’t read it that closely to know whether it only mentions government or dwells on it. There is a statement to the effect of this being how government works and isn’t it ironic that after so long being told government should be more like business, it’s business that is now being told to be more like government… is? I don’t know about that, but again it could be the degree of magnification. Yes, government departments and agencies do operate as holon. So in that respect, I get it. But, within those departments and agencies I’ve yet to see anything but wicked, rank-respecting, bloated and unwieldy hierarchy.

There is, however, one area of government that is definitely holacracy. That is the confederation as Canada is structured with its provinces being largely independent parts loosely held together by the national centre (federal government), and as Switzerland is with its cantons being practically distinct and unrelated units. These work to greater and lesser degrees. One can find wonder or horror in the structure depending on what you choose as a focus.

In any case, it smells a bit like old wine in new bottles. Nostalgia being dusted off and sold for more than its worth. Harumpf.


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.