Interview: Brian Robertson, Holacracy One

Thank you for speaking with me Brian Robertson. I am particularly interested in Holacracy because it has a clear process and a sense of governance. From what I have heard and read, Holacracy seems more distributed (not as hierarchical) in terms of power, and more engaging in terms of individual agency.  Holacracy stands out to me as an interesting social technology. It is an organizational governance system that distributes authority and decision-making. I have a sense that it operationalizes the wirearchy that Jon Husband talks about.

If governance acts as the agreements we make about how we work together, it seems like Holacracy gives us a clear protocol for making those agreements without having them dictated from on high. It dictates a process but not the agreements therein, right?


Yes, very accurate. It doesn’t tell you how to organize your company – it is a meta process for organizing your company. A meta process for the game of figuring out your org structure and different roles in the organization.

Can you give us a brief overview of how it works?

We are used to thinking of governance of the people by the people and for the people. That is not governance in the way. Governance of the org through the people for the purpose.

Rather than thinking of it as an agreement – it isn’t about what Jean and Brian agree to – it is about what role we agree to play and how those roles have relationship with each other. How the roles we fill inter-relate. We are governing the org structure.

That leaves the people free to opt in to that role. We abstract out what our personal preferences and focus on what is needed for the role and goal.

Abstract it from governing people to governing roles. And letting people opt-in to what is needed.


What is this about being a living agreement?

We can so easily get stuck in our head, designing everything up front without enough data about what is actually happening. We can over-design. So what Holacracy does instead is not about designing the perfect the organization up front. Instead, allow the organization to respond – it is an evolutionarily designed algorithmto adapt over time.

I have a sense that Holacracy is an antidote to the “air sandwich” that Nilofer Merchant describes in The New How – where there is a gap between management and marketing with operations and product. Is that right? How?

It forces an organization to face reality. Air sandwich situations are not facing reality. And the traditional model of running organizations make it easy to ignore reality for the management and for the people at the “bottom” to relinquish agency. The fuel for Holacracy is tensions – wherever you perceive a gap – where we could be and where we are and the distance between the two is a tension. It is a stretching.  Most organizations ignore that. The system doesn’t support them into processing that tension into meaningful change. Holacracy goal – Any tension sensed by anyone anywhere in the company has somewhere to go that can get rapidly and reliably processed into meaningful change. As long as it is relevant to the purpose of the organization. The whole system is designed to have channels and flows to process those tensions. That forces clarity.

Tensions bubble up and arrive to the interdepartmental level – the process helps people name the tension. Zappos has rolled it out completely to parts of the organization and now are rolling it out to the rest. They have a very entrepreneurial culture and very human culture – warm and connected. They have used that culture to get amazing results. And now they face the challenge of scale. How do we then bust bureaucracy? We need a structure to support being agile, adaptable, and entrepreneurial. Holacracy fills this gap. They wanted to enable self-organization. How do you do self-organization that is integrated into a larger organization – so fractal and distributed.

They had a pilot which was hard at first. It can be a shock – it challenges a bunch of ingrained patterns of working together. Then it hit a turning point where the first 100 people started working, and the resistors became the champions. So after 4 months in they decided it was the right thing for them and started company wide rollout.


What does this dealing with this tension look like?

Every agenda item in a meeting is driven by one person sensing a tension – and the point of the process that follows is addressing solving that. Process to help get clear on that tension. A process to get clarity on the outputs. A structure and a language for the outputs of meetings. Forces us to be clear about what we are doing and agreeing to in this process.

It is not about how we are sensing but what we are sensing. So it isn’t denying our emotions, it is asking us what those emotions are sensing. Thus the emotions don’t leak all over the meeting, we move to what those emotions are messages about.


What does using the process enable? What becomes easier?

There is both the benefit of finally having the clear process for how we make decisions and take action. And then we also have a process for finding the right agreements.

It doesn’t require consciousness development – it embraces people where they are. But the process has questions has an output of more consciousnesses. Output not a required input. It honors people for where they are.


What about squeaky wheels?

We process things so quickly that those squeeky wheels, even a small ones, can get dealt with. By quickly untangling the sensing from the personal feelings people may have about.

Daniel Mezick wrote about social protocols helping to make work possible by creating safety by making clear what to expect from each other. Basically, it seems like Holacracy is a social protocol on the organizational scale. Would you agree with that?

Yes. One of the fundamental rules of Holacracy – if there is something you want to expect from someone (and that expectation is not in the constitution or the governance records  then you have no rights to expect it. If you want the right to expect it, then you can ask for that. Holacracy helps to surface our expectations – it brings it out… you may not have the right to expect it, but it gives you a chance to notice it and then by being more aware of the expectation, making requests about that expectation.


What does leadership look like in a Holacracy organization?

In this system, leadership is so distributed – people have real authority and autonomy, so leadership isn’t centralized in one heroic figure at the top. It is less of leverage point because you aren’t going to change the system by having the one guy at the top to engage. But also, the guy at the top having a bad day doesn’t disturb the system either. It is a distributed meshwork of people filling in the roles. How we each show up and lead our roles is incredibly powerful. So we want to help everybody be better leaders of themselves.

In much of this book we are talking about individual agency and the ability to opt-in. Your model also seems to encourage individual agency and the power of opting in. Can you say more about that? How and why?

I use the game metaphor for Holacracy all the time. There is opt-in at many levels. One of the things we do is make that choice really really clear. All the expectations are explicit. And then you choose when you want to opt-in to the role. Do you want to steward this organization? And do you want to energize and steward this role? And if you say yes and fill the role, then people know what to expect of you.

When you opt-in you know what autonomy you have and what responsibility you have. And what others you interact with have.

What does this get for us?

  1. when you harness – you are fully benefiting from what anyone can sense. You get a more conscious organization – an org capable of harnessing the consciousness of everyone in it.
  1. You are avoiding some of the limits of conventional hierarchical structure.

Holacracy structures the org roles as if it is one organism… the humans show up much more like a city….

Thank you Brian.