Holacracy in Action: 5 Steps to Developing a High-Performance Team

Johannes Benz Updated on 24.01.2020
6 Min.
Holacracy  in action
Last updated on 24.01.2020

In my last article about Holacracy I explained why we, as founders, decided to rely on a completely different approach to management. Today, I'll guide you through the basic steps involved in implementing Holacracy in your organization. For even more information about getting started with Holacracy, take a look at our Starter Kit.

To start with, I'll briefly recap what Holacracy is and what advantages this kind of management can bring to your organization.

Holacracy - What's it all about?

Holacracy is a management system that transparently distributes responsibility within an organization and gives everyone the opportunity to make their own decisions in their area. It gets rid of direct top-down authority.

Holacracy - What does it promise?

In the previous article, I went into detail about the benefits. In summary, Holacracy offers:

  •       higher satisfaction within the organization
  •       more freedom for the individual employee
  •       more freedom for the boss
  •       better scalability of the organization
  •       more agility in the organization
  •       increased productivity.
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The core of Holacracy - Do your job and adjust!

Put simply, Holacracy consists of two central elements. The elements are roles and the monthly meetings where these roles are adapted.

Do your job! - Roles instead of job descriptions

I'm sure nearly everyone has seen at least one job description in their lives. Many people probably see their own for the first and last time in their job advertisement. The job description comes to life in Holacracy. As a role, it becomes part of the daily work and an anchor point for the allocation of tasks and responsibility. Each person usually has several roles. The roles consist of the following elements:

Purpose: Each role serves a very specific purpose.

Responsibilities: These are the duties of each role. At the same time, they also reflect the expectations of other team members and, of course, those of the "former" boss. The responsibilities may well be made up of 15-20 points.

Area of responsibility: These are the rights of each role. Here the role is in charge and others need to ask for permission to act in the role's area of responsibility.

Finance RAIDBOXES role 1
Example of a role description in short form

The roles, in turn, can be combined into departments. In Holacracy, these departments are called "Circles" and the largest circle is the company itself. Of course, the company also pursues an overriding guiding principle, which needs to be upheld as well. The guiding principle at RAIDBOXES is to give creative people more freedom.

Adjust! - Monthly governance meetings

As the role descriptions are nothing more than a company constitution, the meetings for adapting the roles are called "Governance Meetings". The meetings serve to deal with minor and major conflicts (tensions) and to incorporate them into the role descriptions. 

But don't worry about having to attend yet another meeting! Our meetings currently last between 30 and 45 minutes and are tightly moderated. The moderator should make sure that the set procedure is followed. This is shown in our Starter Kit on slide 12 of the kick-off presentation.

Each role can be adapted, provided these changes don't harm the company.

And that pretty much sums it up. Entire books could still be written about Holacracy. Fortunately, others have already done written some, including the founder of the Holacracy movement, Brian J. Robertson. I personally find Robertson's book "Holacracy" somewhat dry and think it doesn't do the system justice. Nevertheless, it's still a must-read for the person implementing Holacracy in your organization.

Just do it! - The way to more freedom

Anyway, getting started and trying out Holacracy is much more exciting than reading every minute detail about the system!

Test & Start instead of Plan & Wait

This change management recommendation has proven remarkably successful in our organization. The procedure is as follows: decide on a test phase instead of a final implementation. It's important not to stick strictly to every detail when starting out. The overall concept should be adapted to each organization. The two points above, "role descriptions" and "governance meeting", are absolutely essential, however, and can't be excluded.

The advantage of this approach is that instead of just talking about doing it, you actually get started.  At the same time, tests often end up becoming permanent fixtures as soon as the first successes are achieved. It's far easier to adapt a functioning system than to completely introduce a new one.

Step 1 - Appoint Holacracy mentors

You should have one person who has previously worked with Job Descriptions. They'll also be the moderator of the meetings and the point of contact for questions. This person should hold some "power" or influence in the organization. In case of doubt, this person must defend the concept to existing managers or have the authority to stand in front of other employees. This person must also have read and studied Robertson's "Holacracy" thoroughly. Experience in moderation is an advantage.

Step 2 - Make the decision for Holacracy

It's essential that the decision to try Holacracy is made by the top management team. The Holacracy mentor must prepare a briefing and explain the consequences. The most important consequence is that authority is given up and replaced by other leadership elements in some areas.

Step 3 - Hold a Holacracy kick-off workshop

In the kick-off workshop, the concept is presented and explained to the other team members. In a second part, each team member should start writing down their roles. Realistically, you need to plan 3-4 hours for a kick-off workshop. Feel free to visit here and download our starter kit. As part of the Holacracy Starter Kit you'll receive our kick-off slides as a PowerPoint presentation.

Step 4 - Develop and adapt roles

By the time of your first governance meeting, the roles should be laid down and further clarified. Governance meetings should initially be held every two weeks. Circles (see above) should work out their roles for themselves. This part is actually the most time-consuming. Over a period of two months, probably 20 hours per person must be factored in. During this time, roles are dropped, added and changed until a final version emerges.

To make the start as easy as possible for you, we've included in our Holacracy Starter Kit an excerpt from our actual role document. This gives you an initial basic structure and a clearer idea of what this type of document should look like.

Extract Holacracy Marketing Roles RB
An extract from our RAIDBOXES role document. We use Google Docs for the documentation.

Practical tip:

There's a  Holacracy tool available called GlassFrog. Unfortunately, we weren't bigs fans of the tool's user interface. As we use Google Docs across the board within the company, we simply created a "Holacracy role" document instead. Our 50 or so different roles are listed in this document. Google Docs also has the advantage that every team member can enter role changes in the proposal mode, which are then discussed and approved in the monthly governance meetings.

You can download an extract from the document here.

Step 5 - Bear and process tensions

Strictly speaking, Holacracy should now be fully implemented - were it not for habit and human nature. Habit leads to old bosses actually wanting to continue being bosses and giving instructions or blocking decisions. Conversely, the new bosses (the individual employees) have to understand that being boss doesn't just mean free decision making, but also entails responsibility and, above all, being a role model for others. It's important the Holacracy mentor recognizes any undesirable developments in this area and discusses and solves the issues with each individual and in the group.

Ready! - Best wishes for success in your high-performance teams

To really understand the effect of Holacracy, it helps to consult  Tuckman's stages of group development briefly. Every team goes through phases of forming, storming, standardization, and performing. The final phase of Holacracy is the performing phase.

Like in football, when the underdogs Leicester City beat the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea to become the English football champions. The team worked perfectly together, everyone knew what to do, and, in the end, history is written.

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