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Holacracy: work without managers

Culture

Can you imagine going in to work tomorrow and being told you don’t have a manager anymore? Not that yours has gone and will be replaced, but that the role itself has been dissolved? Now imagine how much – or perhaps little – that would impact your own role, and whether that is for better or worse.

Welcome to holacracy. A working environment where roles overlap instead of being stacked on top of each other in a competitive hierarchy or race for the next rung on the ladder. This puts the day-to-day task at the centre of attention, rather than prioritising people, job titles and decision makers.

Zappos, an online retailer acquired by Amazon but operating in its own right, is one of the largest companies to have implemented this flat approach.

There must be something to replace the management function, surely? Not really. This article describes how the company is organised around the task at hand, with individuals having several roles with explicit expectations as defined by the group and working on different teams for different tasks. ‘Lead links’ are people with the power to assign roles or move them to somebody else but without the ability to tell people what to do.

In the same article, Bob Sutton of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business argues it is human nature to make leaders and followers of individuals within groups. He says “show me any group of five human beings or five apes or five dogs, and I want to see the one where a status difference does not emerge. It’s who we are as creatures.”

Managers are normally frontline workers who have progressed, through experience, with their promotion to management status reducing the client contact and hands-on work they do. Instead, they become embroiled in strategy and bureaucracy. Companies introducing holacracy don’t need to get rid of their managers – as in the manpower – but realign their job description and reuse their experience in those hands-on projects.

Medium, created by Twitter co-founder Ev Williams, uses holacracy. Jason Stirman joined Williams at Medium after working with him at Twitter and was relieved to see he wouldn’t have to battle again with the traditional management systems we are all used to, which he came to think of as dehumanising. He took issue with ‘classic’ advice like shielding your team from things they did not need to know in order that they won’t worry or be distracted and instead found transparency to be a better path. He ignored the idea that you shouldn’t get close to reports on a personal level in favour of asking them about the things he knew might be affecting them in their personal lives. While these are not outrightly the purpose of holacracy, they make for a smoother, more open working environment.

From finding a Holacracy Constitution online to experimenting with the incremental roll out of the holacracy business structure, the idea itself and the fact it appears to be working well for some of the big, forward-thinking companies gives reason to seriously consider if your managers need to be managers at all.

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