HBR article on Holacracy: the BSL perspective

Harvard Business Review published an article just two days ago on 22nd March 2016 and it really got our attention at Business School Lausanne: Top-Down Solutions Like Holacracy Won’t Fix Bureaucracy.

As people who have been practicing Holacracy at BSL for more than 6 months now (what a transforming journey it’s been and still is!), we felt the urge to share our view and to help clarify misleading interpretations.

Here our reply which has also been published in the comment section of the HBR online article. We hope it triggers further thoughts and involvement in this lively discussion – let us know what you think!

BSL’s Dr. Katrin Muff reply:

“Dear Gary, dear Scott, 

My reading of the article and the analysis is slightly different. I am delighted that HBR is devoting a bit of space on new organizational forms. There is so much innovation happening in practice, and so little covered by scholars at this point Frederic Laloux’s book “Reinventing Organizations” is a notable exception). I have two issues with the Hamel/Zanini article: first: it misrepresents Holacracy, and second: it confuses it with innovation solution in the strategy / product development area and implies that such innovative processes might be good alternatives to find customized solutions to structural issues in organizations. These are two entirely different concerns and would be worth a seperate discussion. Given the limitation of this comments section, I will focus on the first point here only sharing my perspective and learnings in this space.

Holacracy does not seek to replace bureaucracy, it offers an alternative way of dealing with power in decision-making processes. Given its structured approach, it could be mistaken as an alternative hierarchy or bureaucracy and indeed some companies experience it as such. In our own journey at Business School Lausanne, we had also briefly suffered from this misconception, with a majority of employees treating Holacracy as a new ruler (top down) rather than the enabling support structure that it can be (and is intended to be). Becoming fluent in Holacracy is much like learning a new computer operating system: you cannot slowly switch from Microsoft to Apple – one day, you make the change and then you suffer until you know where what is and how you get things done again. As such, Holacracy does not determine how things are processed (the old hierarchy can be entirely replicated in Holacracy and likely that is the experience at the beginning), it serves as an enabling support structure for those decision and processes in an organization that benefit from the knowledge and know-how of a diversity of people who are closer to the action than a traditional head strategic might have been.

My personal experience, having gone from Dean of BSL (carrying the full responsibility and accountability across all domains) to now being in a self-organizing, power-distributed system, using Holacracy as a supporting tool, has been just amazing! I feel energized with the innovation power that is unleashed in the organization, I can differentiate comfortably between when I “pitch” an idea to a colleague outside of my formal power competencies versus when I request something from a role responsibility I have and I truly enjoy the playfulness and the quick positive feedback of courageous actions of anybody in the organization. Now, this is not to say, that it is all a walk in the park – not everybody naturally embraces the added responsibility that comes with such transparency and the old comfort of hidding in a hierarchy can be dearly missed some days by some people. It is of critical importance to understand that organizational and personal development go hand in hand (this is my research field) and neither every company nor every person is necessarily ready for such a transformative change, which must be a) prepared and b) accompanied very carefully with appropriate coaching and personal development processes and tools. At BSL, all of us have taken up individual coaching and counselling to shed light into areas where shadows haunt us and this is not only beneficial to our organization but also to all of our other relationships in life. A true added-value from a social perspective.

So, summing up on my first concern: Holacracy is not about replacing or fixing Bureaucracy, it serves as a tool to enable & encourage entirely different decisions using the intelligence of those concerned by them directly, and this is not to be confused with strategic & product innovation processes – which have, again a very different aim. And this is my second point: it would be dangerous to mistake such innovation processes as potential solutions for structural issues in an organization – these are of a different nature than strategic or product development. Looking forward to an active continuation of this important discussion – so glad for this space here! Feel free to follow & comment on BSL’s journey here: https://bsl-blog.org/tag/holacracy/.” 

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