The Six Problems With Holacracy

William Tincup Audacious Ideas, Leadership, William Tincup

My disclaimer… (1) I am NOT an expert in holacracy, (2) I love new stuff, and (3) I absolutely love people and concepts that challenge the status quo. That’s that.

Now, before you start this article, please spend 10 minutes reading: thisthis, this, and this.  If reading isn’t your thing (that’s ironic), then watch this. Trust me—it’s important to have some context before reading this rant… ahem, article. Cool? Thanks. Now that we have a relative understanding of what is and isn’t holacracy…

Here are my six problems with holacracy:

  • What happens when things go badly? Holacracy seems to be a scheme that’s built for growth, upmarket, happy times, chaotic-but-generally good times… we’re growing, we’re-taking-over-the-world times. So, what happens when RIFs occur, what happens when bad behavior flares up, who delivers the $h!++y news, who makes the decision who’s going to stay and who’s going to leave? What happens when the secret meetings start to happen? The answer to all these questions is… a resounding… I don’t freaking know… and neither does anyone else. And that should terrify you.
  • Who will and won’t thrive in Holacracy? At first glance, holacracy looks limitless, but it, like every other system, has flaws. People that will thrive in this system will be: (1) people that have a problem with authority, (2) people that can consume ambiguity, and (3) independent thinkers and doers. That sounds like everybody, right? Wrong. Holacracy is a clever attempt to create homogeneity—likeness… and I’m not talking about white people. I mean people that are really similar to one another. They will argue that it’s an efficient system, a lean system, and it will be at the expense of diversity. 
  • What happened to my values—our values? They have been replaced by holacracy. That’s the value system. That’s the code. Kind of seems cultish, right? Well, if it walks like a cult, talks like a cult, sleeps like a cult, burps like a cult… okay you get the point. Truth is, you don’t need corporate values any longer. And for holacracy to truly work… there can be no half measures. Top to bottom, everyone has to drink the Kool Aid. Again for holacracy to have a fighting chance, you have to hire to it, fire to it, live it… each and every day. Bye bye values. 
  • How will it scale? At the end of the day, holacracy might be great for 20 brogrammers in Silicon Valley. But will it work in retail in Tampa? Will it thrive at a hospital in Duluth? Light manufacturing in South Texas? What size company will holacracy work best in and not? What industries will holacracy work best in and not? What geographies will holacracy work best in and not? What about global businesses… i.e., employees with real cultural differences, language differences, etc… will holacracy work there? The answer is three fold: (1) it depends, (2) probably not, and/or (3) nope. Holacracy is a paper napkin idea that might best fit less than 1% of the companies in America. That’s not to say that more companies won’t try it. They’ll just find out the hard way. In fact, someone should go ahead and create the Holacracy Recovery Method, i.e., how-to-get-back-to-business-as-usual manual.
  • How do I manage my career? Wait, the churched up version of that is a term called career pathing. Holacracy is about flatness. Think hierarchy and then think the opposite for holacracy. Sounds good, right? Sounds efficient, right? Well, here’s the problem… actually it’s a dirty little secret: we all want to know what comes next. Maybe it’s our ill-fated love affair with the American Dream. Maybe we believe if we work hard enough that good $h!t happens to us. Dunno. What I do know is that we all—all as in every single one of us—think about the next thing. So, in an extremely flat organization… what the hell is next? Darkness floats about. Maybe this is a shady way to trick twenty somethings into believing that work can actually be different. Again, I don’t know. But if so, those twenty somethings eventually catch on, grow up, get married, have babies and want more money, power and authority. So how is any of that satisfied in an extremely flat organization? In my humble opinion, it isn’t… they go elsewhere. That’s how they’ll manage their own career. They’ll graduate from holacracy.
  • How will they manage bad apples? Truth is, a part of holacracy that I like is the bit about managers. i.e., management without managers. I mean, who doesn’t like that? But after careful thought, it’s actually the wrong war. I don’t hate managers. I fucking hate bad managers… bad bosses… bad leaders. Good / great managers are actually really cool for an organization. That got me thinking: how will companies deal with the eventuality that bad managers (in whatever form) will happen? How will they identify these rotten apples and, more importantly, get rid of said apples? Group think? Call a tribal council meeting? Sounds bureaucratic and slow. If you are thinking of adopting holacracy, dig in and ask tough questions regarding the treatment of bad apples.

Make no mistake about it, this is a new religion. Dropped at our feet is a new Mormonism, new Catholicism, new Judaism. Leaders, ahem, prophets will emerge. Believers will emerge. Doubters will emerge. Those that believe in holacracy will create an “us-versus-them” mentality. On purpose. Mostly, they are ferreting out the weak-minded, the non-believers. That’s how folks will hire. If you understand what holacracy is all about, then you are one of us. If you don’t then, re-join the cavemen and cavewomen.

Oh, and the marketing of holacracy is about to take over our HR worlds. Prepare to be inundated with blog articles (like this one), books, speakers, conference sessions, software apps, etc. If you thought Who Moved My Cheese was good stuff… that was nothing compared to the HR Tsunami that is holacracy. It’s coming people. It’s coming for your hearts, minds and souls. Hearts as in… don’t you want to work in a frictionless work environment? It’s freaking paradise. Minds as in… you’re dumb if you don’t get this “new” way of working and getting stuff done. Souls as in… you’ve lost your belief in mankind… reclaim it here, and this is how to do it.

Holacracy is a pink parakeet in a purple forest. It stands out—for all the wrong reasons.