Interview
Brian Robertson is the world's foremost expert on Holacracy, a revolutionary framework for self-managing organisations, which has been adopted by 1000 companies worldwide.

"We’re used to a management hierarchy, we’ve been organising companies for centuries now with a managerial hierarchy. That’s the traditional way and it’s worked great for the past 100 years. It’s met the needs of our companies fine but the world has changed a lot since then. The past couple of decades we’ve seen complexities skyrocket; the pace of change; the interconnections the companies face in their world. I don’t think the approach that worked for us in the last 100 years will work for us now."

This is what Brian Robertson, who is the world's foremost expert on Holacracy — a revolutionary framework for self-managing organisations, has to say. After years as CEO of an award-winning software company, he co-founded HolacracyOne to share this innovative method with other organisations. Holacracy is a new way of structuring and running your organisation that replaces the conventional management hierarchy. Instead of operating top-down, power is distributed throughout the organisation, giving individuals and teams more freedom to self-manage, while staying aligned to the organisation’s purpose.

The Holacracy framework integrates the collective wisdom of individuals throughout an organisation and offers a toolset for each person to enact meaningful change at any level of work. The result is increased transparency, greater accountability, constant innovation, and agility across the company.

Holacracy is used by over 1000 companies today – in healthcare, insurance, banking, retail, technology, nonprofit and government sectors and in places as diverse as Dubai, Shanghai, Amsterdam, London, Berlin, New York, Bengaluru and rural Africa. Brian is the author of the book Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World. He speaks at conferences, holds trainings and consults for organisations across the globe.

In an interaction with TNM, Brian spoke about how the concept came about, the challenge for companies in adopting this methodology and how he sees it evolving, among other things.  

How did the concept of holacracy come about? 

Holacracy is a new framework for managing a company. It’s a replacement for the management hierarchy. It’s a completely different way of organising a company than using a management hierarchy. There are no managers, no management hierarchy. That doesn’t mean there is no structure. People often hear no managers and they think no structure. That’s not true. It’s more structured, not less than a management hierarchy. We just get it structured differently and that’s at the heart of what holacracy is.

It started in my own company. I’m not a management theorist or academic. I’m an entrepreneur. I build companies and I built a software company. Started almost 20 years ago and I started the company intentionally to be a laboratory. I wanted to find a better way to run a company. And holacracy grew out of years of experimenting. I never intended it as something that would spread to other organisations. It was really just originally meant for mine. It spread through word of mouth entirely and now it’s more than 1000 companies all over the world that are doing it. 

Are there companies in India which are using this methodology? 

Yes, there are. Calm Achiever is one and they are now our Indian licensees. They started just adopting holacracy in their own business to run their own company and it worked so well. They liked it so much, they said let’s help other companies do it. They are helping other companies in India adopt it. There are a couple others already and it’s just getting started here. So, it’s kind of at the beginning of it’s growth curve here in India. 

What’s the history behind coining this term holacracy? 

Well, we needed a word to label this new approach. We developed this new framework and it was this whole system; we needed something to call it. So we went looking for words, we ended up with holacracy. The root word is holarchy which is a word that was coined by a philosopher called Arthur Koestler in the mid-1900s and it was used to describe a certain type of structure. A holarchy is a structure where every level has autonomy and yet is part of a broader entity. It’s a special type of hierarchy which is not a command hierarchy like we see in companies. It’s a hierarchy where every level has autonomy and yet is part of a broader level. And that’s exactly what holacracy does for a company. It brings in an organisational system where instead of a command hierarchy of managers, every role has real autonomy to lead.

What is the biggest apprehension for companies in shifting to this methodology? 

It’s a huge change. It’s disruptive; it’s changing mindsets; it’s changing practice. It’s changing how people lead and how they follow. So it’s such a major change. The biggest obstacle is really fear of that, it’s scary. As it should be, it’s a big change. Fortunately, in practice, it’s actually not that scary. The other big thing that gets in the way is that there are a lot of people; they know how to lead the way they used to. They don’t necessarily want to change. So it takes a pretty innovative, visionary leader at the top. The thousands of  companies today that are doing this, the leaders of those companies are really, really remarkable people. They have vision, they have insight and they intuitively get that there are better ways to run a company. And holacracy is a tool for them. 

Does this concept apply to organisations across the board? 

I’m just so surprised how across the board it is. We have for-profit and non-profit. There are now several govt entities doing it. There are big companies, not across the entire company but in departments of giant companies doing it. There are tiny companies as well. We have 3-person companies to 1500-person companies. And then we have giant companies, much bigger than 1500 that are doing it at a department level. All different industries, all different types of work; hi-tech, low-tech, manufacturing, retail, it’s across the board. 

Going forward, how do you see this methodology evolving? How big can it get? 

It you had asked me that 15 years ago, I would have said just my one company. It’s not really for anybody else. Nobody wants to organise in this kind of radically new way of working with power. And if you’d ask me five years ago, when there was may be 50 companies doing this, I would have said not more than 100. Now, it’s at a thousand and it’s growing exponentially. I almost don’t trust my own answer at this point. What I do know is this. I think the way we have organised companies in the past; the management hierarchy model I think is becoming obsolete. Whether it’s holacracy or something else, we need new approaches. I think a hundred years from now or at some point in the future, we’re going to look back on companies running with today’s top-down management hierarchy like dinosaurs. I hope holacracy can be part of the answer to that, may be there will be other methods that will come up. I just know we need other ways. 

And how do you see the business environment in India?

India is like China in the sense that it’s seen so much change in such a short amount of time. Some of these emerging economies like India, they are going through this massive booming growth which is in a lot of ways stressing the system. It’s like India now needs better ways to manage, way more than it did 30 years ago. Now, it’s like there’s so much new activity, so much growth. And it’s the pace of change, it’s the speed, it’s dizzying. And companies all over the world, not just in India, are suffering from how do we respond to that. How do we organise with the complexity and the speed of our world today? And I think India has just been thrust into that challenge.