Holacracy and the challenges of self-organization


A look back on our third Meetup on Alternative Leadership and Team Organization.


Some weeks ago we—the SI-Labs team—started our journey into the promising, adventurous new world of Holacracy. For those who haven’t heard of it yet, Holacracy is a way of organizing companies around roles with well-defined responsibilities and circles to group these. It also introduces a meeting structure that separates daily work issues from considerations about the company structure. Individual initiatives and ownership are promoted.

While we were pondering with the decision to take the step to move to a new organizational form, we tried to wrap our heads around the practical implications and had a look at the book by Brian Robertson. After taking the decision we made the first bold steps and printed our constitution and held the first governance meeting. Despite reading the book, quite a few questions arose while we were doing these first rather simple steps. At the same time, we received one key advice whenever we reached out to others about their experience with organizational change: Connect with fellow entrepreneurs, talk to people who did it, learn from their experience.


First-hand experience in self-organization

So it was only natural to use our well-established Meetup on alternative leadership to invite two speakers who already implemented a version of Holacracy in their organizations.

As one of the founders of Blinkist, Sebastian Klein introduced to us their own lighter approach called Blinkracy. Tobias Leonhardt who works as a facilitator for self-organization at Zalando Technology gave his take on teal organizations. Both described the problems and challenges they encountered in their respective organizations and how they had hoped to solve them with Holacracy.


Blinkist moved from silos to circles to get things done

Two years after initially starting Blinkist, Sebastian and his team found themselves in a startup that had evolved into the kind of hierarchical organization that he and his co-founders had fled from in big corporates before. Essentially, the team was faced with ineffective silo-structures, implicit expectations and politics, leadership issues and no shared sense of “We”.

There was no real sense of ‘We’. We had created exactly what we were running away from before in the corporate world
— Sebastian Klein

Sebastian described how introducing Holacracy eliminated the silo-structure by overlapping circles. Roles and circles replaced job descriptions and departments. Clear role descriptions helped to make office politics disappear and leadership issues were channeled through a structured governance process. Moreover, another important change came with the separation of governance and tactical meetings to distinguish between work in the organization and work on the organization’s structure. The fundamental orientation towards a common purpose also helped to reestablish a sense of “we” which had gone lost before.

Sebastian concluded, that the changes made Blinkist a more fun place to work at and got more work done with less discussion. On top of that, investors were happy with a agile and productive company.

Continuing with a case study, Sebastian described how distributed authority and decentralized decision making made it possible to build and release a product feature which had long been discussed but never realised. For month the team was pondering about how to best implement an audio feature that would make their content accessible to commuters, one of their prime target groups. They abandoned the idea several times due to resource constraints. After reorganizing it just needed the initiative of one person to get the feature started and make it come true.



Radical Agility helps Zalando move even faster

Our second guest, Tobias Leonhardt, introduced the system of Radical Agility at the Zalando Tech team which faced similar organizational problems. Their framework is based on three core pillars – Purpose, Mastery, Autonomy.

Every human wants to grow and if not... He might have forgotten about it
— Tobias Leonhardt

Starting by describing how he initially implemented consent decision making, role autonomy and distributed leadership in one department, he shared his view on the general upside of self-organization. His overall goal was to empower employees to act independently in their own domain and live the principle of “ask forgiveness, not permission”. Initially going through a “valley of tears” directly after the implementing the new structure the team soon earned the fruits of practicing Holacracy, Radical Agility and a generally more distributed leadership framework.


Recommendations for making the transformation a success

Eventually, Sebastian and Tobias gave a couple of recommendations to get started with implementing Holacracy:

  1. At the very beginning, read the books and stick to the framework before you develop your own approach. Start with a subset and get existing team leads involved.
  2. Strategic investments in form of time, patience and will are key to successfully implement Holacracy – an organizational change does not happen all by itself overnight.
  3. On top of it all: Get in touch with people who have first hand experience and learn from each other.

After their talks quick rounds of discussions followed in which the audience had a chance to connect with other participants, exchange thoughts on self-organization and share their takes on possible effects of organizational changes.

The evening helped us to steer our course forward and showed that we are on the right track and part of a growing community. If you want to learn more, come to our speaker’s next meetup on self organization or get in touch with us. Also, check out our job openings if you want to build Holacracy with us.

In any case, we will keep you posted on how our journey progresses – stay tuned.


Further reading