Are YOU Planning on Doing Away With Your Managers? Doubtful.

A new word crept into HR’s vernacular last week:  holacracy.

Better get used to seeing it because I’m sure every twitter chat and every blog post by every consultant in HR will have some opinion on it soon enough. I’m also guessing that each of those posts will rave about it and suggest that you follow in Zappos’ footsteps if you want your company to survive the coming armageddon of Boomer retirements, Gen X angst and/or Millennial impatience (take your pick—they all have been touted as the next problem you’ll face. Me? I’m still waiting on flying cars.)

You MUST do this to be cool, hip, now, rad, wow, etc. Everyone drink! Zappos is doing away with managers! Bandwagon loading around the corner, don’t be late.  By the way, the Kool-Aid is free.

Just to be clear—holacracy is an organization structure that seeks to replace the traditional, hierarchical organization structure with governing “circles” focused on specific work outputs—not titles or functions per se. Each circle operates autonomously and without job titles for its members. Members of circles (employees) can be part of multiple circles and can do different things depending on the focus of the specific circle.

Come to think of it, this sounds a lot like how Google + works… hmmm.

Not Foolproof

I get where this is going. I agree that organizing around work to be done and not around function or people reduces the “social friction” inherent in organizational layers and titles. It should make things easier for everyone—especially for innovation and change. Where I see some bigger problems arising is in the ability to determine performance and how the company will decide who is pulling their weight and who isn’t. They (the company) says:

Zappos and Robertson are careful to note that while a holacracy may get rid of traditional managers (those who both manage others’ work and hold the keys to their career success), there is still structure and employees’ work is still watched. Poor performers, Robertson says, stand out when they don’t have enough “roles” to fill their time, or when a group of employees charged with monitoring the company’s culture decide they’re not a good fit. (source: Washington Post)

I find the idea that a “group of employees charged with monitoring the company’s culture” deciding my worth and whether I’m doing a good job to be somewhat flawed (does the Inquisition ring any bells?).  And I wonder who will decide how many circles is enough to belong to and how much of my time should be dedicated to which circle. Seems to me that there are a lot more cooks—and a lot more kitchens—so color me quizzical when it comes to seeing how this will work.

But there is evidence that it will work.  The Gore company (of Goretex fame) has been “managerless” since its inception in 1958. They call it “team-based, flat-lattice organization” with no traditional org charts or chains of command. It’s worked for them for almost 70 years. Other examples of non-traditional, hierarchy-free companies include 37Signals, GitHub, and Valve Corporation. Each of these have very flat—almost hierarchy-free—structures and they get the job done. So, it can work.

What I am saying is this:  Ideas like holacracy are great fodder for webinars, SHRM concurrent sessions with strategic credit, whitepapers and blog posts.  They are not, however, for mass consumption.

And that is okay.

Outliers Gonna Be Outliers

We need to take a step back and understand that companies like the ones mentioned here—Zappos included—are outliers. They occupy that very narrow band at the very edge of the business world. They are leading edge, bleeding edge, gushing edge if you will.  They are and will always be (until the next Zappos comes along) the cool kids. There will always be that table of companies in the middle of the cafeteria that do things differently and do the things we wish we could do. But we can’t.

We can’t because we’re part of the mainstream. We have 99 problems. They don’t. We have an embedded cultural bias toward organizational bureaucracy and hierarchy—they don’t. We have very traditional systems and thinking. We have a history, culture, and people that will never allow such wholesale change to take root—from day one, they have a culture built on diversity and weaned on change… and they embrace it.

You can wish to be Zappos or GitHub or Goreall you want . It won’t happen. Outliers are outliers for a reason.

They are, however, the stars we set our course by in order to move forward. They are the trailblazers. They allow us to see what is possible (but not always probable). They provide us with ideas and with options. They give us permission to try new things.

What they don’t do is create the new normal overnight.

So go to bed tonight worry-free. You won’t be getting rid of your managers anytime soon. You might have more discussions on how you can reduce reliance on hierarchy and have a few more autonomous projects and experiments in your organization. And those are good things. But don’t beat yourself up too much, and don’t jump into the boat with the next guru who suggests you dismantle your organization.

I’d bet everything that you’ll have a managerless office the same day I place my order for a flying car.

FOT Background Check

Paul Hebert
Paul Hebert is the Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Creative Group Inc and a writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. Over the course of his career, Paul has worked closely with clients to design influence, marketing, motivation, incentive, loyalty, recognition and reward programs to increase effectiveness and reduce costs. Paul is a recognized authority on incentives and performance motivation. Want to know what’s going to motivate your people to perform at their best and impact the bottom line? Want to know whether your service award program really means anything at all? Curious what psychological principles drive sales behavior? Paul’s your guy… unless you fervently bow down to Maslow. Check out his personal blog at "What Is Paul Thinking?" when you're tired of his FOT rants.


  1. kd says:

    “outliers gonna be outliers”

    Truer words may have never been spoken. What would happen if we stopped wishing we could be outliers and just found a cooler way to make the donuts with the team/structure we had.

    Good stuff Paul.


  2. Paul Hebert says:

    a journey of a thousand miles… we forget that too often.

  3. Rather than “not for mass consumption” I would say we don’t have enough leaders to help people understand what circular organizational systems are and how they function. People need more experience. For example. Gerard Endenburg who developed sociocratic ideals into a method that worked in corporations said people have to have the experience of democracy before they can handle sociocracy. That means they need to have developed the ability to make decisions in an organizational context and the skills to self-organize. That’s why I think to bring circular organizational systems to schools is most important. In one generation we could change expectations in the workplace.

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Sharon – I agree we have few leaders willing to take the leap. I think we need to see more than a few data points before we can start to say this is an option many companies should try. To me it still looks and feels like an outlier solution – something that will work – in specific cases, with specific people and cultural predispositions. Does it work better than the system we have for most companies? I don’t know.

      I can say it is different enough – and – dare I say it – it requires a maturity in management and in the rank and file that we may just not have yet.

      It is interesting… and worth paying attention to and experimenting with as we can.

      Thanks for reading and for engaging – really appreciate it.

  4. Hey, I work with Holacracy everyday and I’ve witnessed how much misconceptions there has been around what Holacracy is and how it works. Holacracy is a specific system with specific rules, not just a category of “flat organizations”. More in this blog post: “Holacracy Is Not What You Think”

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Thanks for the link Olivier. While I don’t profess to know the ins and outs of holacracy I do think it is a very specialized sort of organizational structure that isn’t ready for everyone. I do agree with Sharon who said we in her comment that we don’t have enough leaders to make this happen – I’d also suggest we don’t have enough rank and file to make it happen either. Maybe in another generation.

      Also, the quant in me would like to see more evidence. I think we’re missing a few data points to start to call this a leap forward. It’s interesting – but again I’ll suggest it is for outliers only. Time will tell. Appreciate the readership and the comments!

  5. Toby Wells says:

    In any company, there are going to be jobs that people want to do, and jobs that people do not want to do. If some of those jobs that ‘people don’t want to do’ are critical to the daily operations and success of a company, who would do them? So for example: Proposal Management (RFP writing) is a notoriously displeasing pastime. The hours are long, the deadlines endless and the tasks insanely repetitive. Yet, so much of a companies sales success depends on it. Another example: Customer Phone Support. This position is mandatory in many companies, and is also a long thankless job. In this Holacracy model who would do these sorts of jobs? Would everyone not simply gravitate away into other more interesting, more fulfilling, more engaging circles? There must be some compensation for these positions. Compensation that would necessarily have to outstrip the compensation for more interesting, full-fulling and engaging roles. The end result would be tier 1 call agents being paid more than tier 2 agents, or teir 3 agents or HR personnel, marketing people and sales reps. If there are checks and balances on who can move to which role…well then, that’s just another form of top-down management.

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