Book Cover


This week, we complete  Part One of Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World by Brian J. Robertson published by Henry Holt and Company in 2015.  Chapter 3, titled Organizational Structure describes the structural components of a holacracy.  Chapter 3 provides the building blocks that allow distributed authority (Chapter 2) to function effectively.Chapter 3 provides the building blocks that allow distributed authority (Chapter 2) to function effectively.

Chapter 3: Organizational Structure

Chapter 2 provided the tools for distributing authority and the need for the organization to be able to quickly and continuously evolve how that authority is distributed. However, distributing authority in a dynamic environment without addressing how an organization is structured will cause chaos. The organization structure needs to be conducive to the processes needed to distribute authority. The classic pyramid structure organization is typically out of date, irrelevant and difficult to change.

Most organizations have three potential organizational structures. The one expressed by the org chart, the informal structure and the structure that best suits the organization’s purpose. The later is generally aspirational. The gap between what is and what could create friction within the organization that reduces the organization’s ability to achieve its purpose. The governance meetings are designed to help transform the organization from the “what is” into the “could be” structure. In holacracy the formal structure is always evolving based on the tension between what is it and what could/should be.

Roles are the basic building blocks of an organization. This is in comparison to classic organizations in which the job (or block on the org chart) is the basic building block. In a holacracy, authority is distributed to a role, not a person. Complex or large roles can be broken down into sub-roles. In a holacray the roles are grouped and organized based on the purpose rather than the people being grouped and organized. Focusing on the roles leave the people free to self-organize. Needed roles can be played by the individual that has capacity, rather than the having to waiting on a specific person is available.

Robertson suggests that a critical question that should be asked is not who you are accountable to, but rather “what are people at counting on you for.” Asking this question forces an examination of whether there is clarity around responsibilities and roles. Differences in expectations generate frustration and friction caused by the need to sort out the expectation. In holacracy the governance process acts as a mechanism to adjudicate role and responsibility differences. One of the critical points in the chapters is that in holacracy, the structure helps to differentiate between the people working in the organization and the functions or will they fulfill.
In holacracy, tasks are assigned to a role, not a person. This distinction separates the person and the role. However, roles and people generally confused. This true in the business and nonbusiness scenarios. When asked, I often respond that I am a consultant rather than the roles I play. Robertson uses examples from nonbusiness scenarios to make the point that people often perform multiple roles. For example, I have several roles including father, grandfather, spouse, writer, consultant and household elf.

A holacray constitution defines a role as consisting of three specific elements:
· Purpose provides the reason a role is needed.
· A domain defines the sphere for which the role has authority.
· Accountabilities are the ongoing activities that the role has the authority and is expected to perform.

The governance process in the constitution provides a process for adjusting all three elements.

Classic organization charts are typically represented as a pyramid. Holacracy is represented as a set of circles. The organization is represented as a super circle, called an anchor circle. Depending on size and complexity, the anchor circle is populated by sub-circles and roles (also represented as circles). Each circle is a holon (defined as something that is simultaneously a whole and a part). In holacracy, each circle is both autonomous and part of the larger organization. As organizations grow, circles breakdown. For example, a design firm my wife owned began as a single group of designers (one circle) and grew into a company which included designers, programming, and administration. Three circles. Further, the designers broke down into two: print and digital designers.

Circles without a mechanism for data to be shared across the boundaries become silos. Holacracy uses three types of links to facilitate the flow of information and purpose across the boundaries of circles.
Lead link. The lead link is appointed by the super circle (the circle the sub-circle is within) to represent the super-circle’s needs and purpose. The lead link brings information to the sub-circle, routing new information to the correct roles. The lead link is not a manager in the classic sense but rather routes information to roles in the circle. The lead link does not have the power to fire, hire or determine compensation, but can remove a role from a person.
Representative link. The representative link is elected by the members of the sub-circle and represents the sub-circle’s issues to super circle.
The lead and representative links provide a bi-directional path to connecting the circles and to provide alignment and feedback.
Crosslinks. This type of link represents a specialized form of link between sub-circles. In the company, I work for an example of a cross-link would be the role of solution engineer that links delivery and sales.

Holocracy identifies several roles that are elected by the people within a circle. These include facilitator, secretary, and representative. The lead link role is assigned. Elected positions generally are held for a year and participate in the meetings that shape the use of holacracy (governance meetings and tactical meetings – which are defined in later chapters).

Transformation Notes: Separating roles and people is a huge step for both people and organizations. The process of separating roles and individuals begins with defining roles. The book suggests that all three attributes (purpose, domain, and accountabilities) do not need to be defined all at once, but rather can evolve. This is a judgment call. The more resistance that is expected during a transformation the more definition of the attributes and governance process will be needed to defuse passive aggressive behavior.

Team Coaching Notes: Help teams use words that separate individuals from the role they are playing. A side benefit of separating roles and people is that it becomes easier to discuss how a role was performed when you are not seen to be critiquing a person.

Remember to buy a copy of Holacracy (use the link in the show notes to help support and defray the costs of the Software Process and Measurement Cast blog and podcast).

Previous Entries in the re-read:

Week 1:  Logistics and Introduction
Week 2: Evolving Organization
Week 3: Distribution Authority

A Call To Action
I need your help. I have observed that most podcasts and speakers at conferences over-represent people from Europe and North America. I would like to work on changing that exposure. I would like to develop a feature featuring alternate software development voices beginning with Africa and Southeast Asia. If this feature works we will extend it to other areas. If you can introduce me to practitioners that would be willing to share their observations (short interviews) I would be appreciative!  Feel free to leave a note or send an email at