holacracy-bookLast September felt like the beginning of a school year with a new curriculum when we decided to try out Holacracy for our small nonprofit staff. Due to some downsizing in the midst of ongoing strategic discernment and organizational growing pains, we saw the need for better defining “how we work” so that we could determine how best to engage our limited staff resources.

Nine months later as if it were finals week, we were tested when our Executive Director required unexpected open-heart surgery and our “next in line” was halfway around the world on a business trip. Holacracy played a part in saving the day. Business proceeded as usual, with our small staff taking on roles that had been clearly discussed and defined. We’re good at self-organizing and stepping up to get work done, but Holacracy helped clarify decision-making accountabilities. Work continued with hardly any balls dropped while he was away for surgery and six weeks of recovery. (He’s back now, hearty and hale.)

In the July/August issue of Harvard Business Review, the article “Beyond the Holacracy Hype” examines the myths and the promise of self-managed teams. The Center for Courage & Renewal recently examined the value of Holacracy ourselves after testing it for nine-months. The resounding conclusion, despite some initial resistance, was that we don’t want to stop, we want to learn more, and we want it customized to our own culture and needs.

Although we haven’t adopted Holacracy’s constitution as our formal operating system, we have found aspects of the framework to be a secret ingredient in navigating our own VUCA world.

The timing of our staff reflection and open-heart surgery coincided with new expansion. Receiving grant funds to hire two new staff coincided with needing to replace the MarComm assistant who is moving on. Holacracy roles are helping us define the hiring in a much more efficient, transparent way. We are sorting through our business model complexity, our budget realities, and our vision for hiring people who have the heart for what we do with an ability to bring their gifts in more agile ways than a rigid hierarchy might allow.

In what could be a very stressful, fearful situation where we might go to our default corners of control and command, Holacracy gives us a paradigm shift to reimagine our team, our work, and how we want our culture to support our small team to deliver on our big mission.

Disconnecting Soul and Role was Disquieting at First

Reconnecting soul and role is the heart of our mission at the Center for Courage & Renewal. We teach a set of principles and practices called the Circle of Trust® approach so that people “reconnect who they are with what they do”. We believe great things can happen when people commit to becoming more authentic, self-aware and adept at building trust within themselves and between and among people, uniting across lines of difference. People become more resilient and engaged for the long haul when they reconnect to their meaning and purpose—and to each other. And that kind of wholehearted leadership is good for individuals, teams, organizations, communities, and for the greater good of any worthy cause.

Imagine the seeming incongruence of Holacracy’s idea that it’s important to disconnect soul from role. Holacracy considers a role distinct from a person, with specific accountabilities and decision-making authority. When a new task needs to be done, you ask “the role” not “the person.” That means you don’t say “Will you do this for me because you like me,” or “because I’m your boss and I say so,” or “I’m desperate—do you have time?” It means you can say no or yes or let’s figure out who is best to do a new task done based on our roles. And if it’s a task that doesn’t fall under anyone’s domain, you can determine objectively how it fits into the strategic big picture. Is taking that on a good opportunity calling for nimble adapting, or is that a symptom of scope creep that often derails the best of intentions? Do we need a new role altogether?Click to see book at Amazon

Defining roles as separate from soul was at first a challenging concept for us where we invite each other to always show up in our “wholeness.” You could say our founder, Parker J. Palmer, wrote the book on wholeness—A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Inspired by Palmer, Frederic Laloux names Wholeness as a teal concept in his book Reinventing Organizations, in which the Center for Courage & Renewal and Holacracy both appear as case studies. For us, wholeness is not limited to the “soul & role” of an individual or the diverse composition of a group. We strive to see the paradox of both/and as the whole. A Courage & Renewal practice around paradox is learning to “hold tensions in life-giving ways” (see our Touchstones).

Holacracy has given us an additional lens for processing tensions, and calls us to be even more clear about our Purpose so that we can self-organize well. If your hope is to see self-organized employees working together to achieve and express your organizational purpose, you have to cultivate self-aware individuals within a corporate culture that walks the talk about trust. Below is more about how Holacracy has complemented the strengths of our aspirational-teal organization.

Implementing Holacracy for a Small Staff, Big Mission

Seven of us (soon to be nine) work at the hub of a global nonprofit comprised further of almost 300 independent facilitators, a Board of Directors, three co-Founders, plus a Program Team who work as contractors. So far, only the Center staff have applied Holacracy.

We had the help of Dianne Dickerson, of Duet, a consultant working for us on a pro bono basis as a generous way she chose to learn more about implementing Holacracy before charging fees. We were not always happy guinea pigs in the early phase of monthly Governance meetings to define our roles. But it was the most important groundwork we laid. Among the seven of us, and considering the downsizing departure of our Associate Director last year, we divvied up and defined who does what and why. We came up with the roles playfully named which added some fun and ownership.

Table 1 shows how we matched new Holacracy roles to our existing traditional job titles. Because the role titles are long and some roles overlap into multiple areas, this is presented here in a chart. Normally, Holacracy would visualize staff relationships in circles and sub-circles.

Table 1: Current Holacracy Roles at the Center for Courage & Renewal

Executive DirectorMarComm DirectorDevelopment Officer
Board Handler; Buck Stops Here; Lead Link; Major Gifts Magnet; Org-wide Strategy, Vision, Direction; Program VisionerMarketing & Communications Director; Bookmeister; Lead Storycatcher; Program Evaluation Lead; Policy Writer; Online Donation System Manager; Online Vendor Liaison; Holacracy SecretaryDevelopment Officer; Development Data; Invitational Retreat Coordinator; Mail Chump
Office Manager &
Program Registrar
MarComm AssistantBookkeeper
Office Manager; Program Registrar; Board Wrangler; Mail Chump; Debt Hound; Back Office Coordinator; Holacracy FacilitatorCopywriter/Editor; Graphic Designer; Jostle Knight; Online Donation Setup; Online Megaphone / Case-Maker; Program Data CoordinatorBookkeeper – Numbers Ninja; Debt Hound; Keeper of the Force
Facilitator Program DirectorSchools/Leading Together DirectorSchools/Healthcare Coordinator
Director of Facilitator Preparation Program; Director of Clergy ProgramLeading Together LeaderLeading Together Coordinator; Health Care Program Coordinator

Some of us defined our roles into very specific “accountabilities” that sounded much like our To Do Lists, naming the nuances of who does what on sub-teams. Others chose to define our roles in broad terms, partly because those roles have recurring tasks that are clearly defined. The number of roles also reveals the overlapping and DIY nature of a small nonprofit staff, which is also why we haven’t defined sub-circles yet.

Highlights from Our Self-Assessment

As our staff reflected on what has worked well about adopting Holacracy, here’s what we agreed upon:

  • We appreciate the format of the weekly tactical meetings for an efficient way of informing each other with metrics, project updates and generally keeping us out of our silos, which can happen even in a small staff.
  • We will move to a quarterly Governance meeting unless the roles are becoming unclear and lack of clarity around decision-making or other power issues seems to be causing problems.
  • For now, we will not adopt the Constitution or the strictest form of Holacracy implementation, because the constraints are not worth our agility at this time.

Our staff made the following comments about how Holacracy has helped.

“Holacracy facilitates work when people are absent; things don’t stop when people are out.”

“We are more fleet of foot in addressing new situations. We are able to move forward more quickly rather than thinking out and addressing every possible challenge in advance.”

Tactical meetings with the criteria for raising tensions help us focus on solution seeking not just naming problems.

“Tactical meetings with the criteria for raising tensions help us focus on solution seeking not just naming problems. We name real, immediate tensions, not predictions of what might go wrong and it means someone owning it, then proposing action to resolve it.”

“The focus on processing tension helps us efficiently drill into what’s important rather than seeing whole mess of things. We go right to the stuck places that are most important. I’ve been surprised by that in a great way.”

“We’ve brought the language into the rest of our work, especially around problems. I like when we ask “that sounds like a tension to raise” or “how does that fit into a role?”

“In subtle ways we’ve made Holacracy our own, softened the edges of the protocols without losing the power of the protocols.”

Because those positives are worthwhile reasons to continue with Holacracy, we will find other ways to handle what didn’t work so well. Here are a few examples:

  • Tactical meetings are run by an elected facilitator whose job is to shut down things that fall outside the Holacracy rules, which can be stifling to any group of creative and curious people who rely on lively intellectual discussion to do their work. Freeform discussion tends to shut down and then not everyone gets included in later meetings, losing richness of diverse input and creativity. We agreed to call a Holacracy time-out to allow space for vital brainstorming to ensue, letting the facilitator watch for it derailing the meeting completely.

We agreed to call a Holacracy time-out to allow space for vital brainstorming to ensue…

  • The frequency of meeting once a week for tactical meetings feels burdensome when our workload is high. We agreed it’s okay to can cancel the weekly tactical when too many people are absent, and not have Governance monthly. We also agreed awhile back not to have tactical meetings on Mondays. We meet Wednesday mid-morning.
  • We will recommit to defining roles where work is falling through the cracks and priorities need reassessed in light of available resources.
  • We sometimes miss the chance for reflection that our Circle of Trust approach uses for check-ins, such as a piece of poetry to ground us in our time together. Rather than force it, we agreed that any of us can bring in reflection for check in our check outs, if we are moved, but it won’t be forced onto the strict agenda.

Perhaps the best learning we’ve seen is that the Holacracy process has helped each staff person find and exercise their voice in the operations and direction of the Center. It has helped us all grow developmentally and take responsibility for our needs, tensions, and speaking up about them. These benefits coincide nicely with our own Courage & Renewal practice collection known as the Habits of the Heart.

Our Own Hybrid Boils Down to Trust

The HBR article authors wrote, “…one of the greatest challenges of implementing the goals at scale is insufficient leadership. When leadership is a shared responsibility, everyone must understand and practice it.”

Further the authors summarized, “Companies must also work out how much hierarchy and process they need to ensure coherence and what other kinds of “glue,” such as shared purpose and a common ethical compass, they can use.”

For us, trust is the glue. If you want to create efficient, self-organized teams, you have to start with self-aware individuals who can trust themselves to take on the responsibility of their roles and trust each other to get the work done. Open, honest communication is vital and that requires relational trust.

You’ll need to walk your talk about trust…

If you want each person to help express the evolutionary purpose of the organization, you’ll need time for honest reflection on your individual and organizational purpose, hopes and values.

You’ll need to walk your talk about trust, and create the trustworthy conditions in which people truly are welcome to own their roles, to make decisions, even to fail while being accountable (holding themselves accountable out of integrity, not fear).

You must also be clear in the wholeness of your own leadership (honest about your strengths as well as your limits as just one paradox of the myriad you can manage). Teal leaders must be able to create a community of understanding and shared commitment to a bigger vision.

Beyond Self Management to Transformation

At the Center for Courage & Renewal, we’re setting our sights further than self-management. By starting with self-awareness and self-management, fortified by more capacity in relational trust, we believe we can create more courageous leaders. Those leaders will be better equipped and sustained to bring about the collective courage that will create collaborative solutions to seemingly intractable problems, transforming the world we live in.

Hybrid Holacracy Will Help

Holacracy will be one ingredient in our own evolution. We will continue to define our roles and accountabilities for new hires. We will consider defining roles for those who work closest with us in our stakeholder organization. We will explore the rubric of “Emphasize X even over Y” in our strategy to help us discern priorities and resources. We have already embraced Holacracy as an effective way to process the tensions of reliability and adaptability, and we will continue to live into the promise of effectiveness and faithfulness to our higher purpose. We’ll see where we are six months and a year from now, and adapt.

Holacracy isn’t only for emergencies, like when your boss is unexpectedly facing open-heart surgery. It’s also for when your staff is healthy and whole, as we are now, because it helps us take our collective work to the next level of effectiveness.

In times that are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous for nearly every organization on the planet, we all need people who are willing to step into leadership with a wholeness of voice and agency. We need to develop habits of the heart. Holacracy holds promise if applied or adapted with authentic engagement, discernment and the courage to try something new.

Featured Image/graphic link added by Enlivening Edge Magazine