Book Cover


This week we tackle Chapter 5 of Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World by Brian J. Robertson published by Henry Holt and Company in 2015.  Chapter 5, Operations, puts the roles and policies defined in governance to work.

Robertson starts Chapter 5 by recalling the adage – slow down to speed up. We are being exhorted to pull back from the day-to-day work in order to improve how the organization is organized by listening to a diverse group of people.  The use the structure of the organization defined as part of governance to do work is operations. Said differently, everything that does not fall into the responsibility of governance is operations. Operations are about using the structure to find a governance.

The Basics of Operations

Critical Definitions:  In Holacracy, Robertson uses two definitions from the book Getting Things Done (David Allen).  The first is that a project is an outcome to be achieved and second that a next step is a concrete physical action that could be executed now. 

Operations are focused on doing tasks or projects.  Robertson describes a basic behavior pattern for each project or pieces of work.  Begin by defining a clear set of criteria that must be true for the project to compete.  The criteria should be as clear as a true or false question.  Then take the first step. When the step is a complete test whether the project completion criteria have been satisfied.  You are either done or you take the next step.  Those that are familiar with test first development will recognize and be heartened by the pattern.

One of the central values of Holacracy is that people throughout an organization must have clear autonomy to take decisive action. That authority comes with increased accountability to self-manage. Self-management requires the explicit responsibilities of sensing and processing tensions (Robertson’s words for the stress between roles and processes), executing accountabilities, working through and tracking projects, taking next actions, directing attention, people and resources. Except in the very simplest role, every individual needs a system to help them fulfill their responsibilities.  The complexity of roles in an organization makes it impossible to keep everything in your head.

Every circle member has a set of basic duties:

  1.   The duty of transparency.  This duty has four sub-duties; sharing projects and next actions, making sure the order of work (relative priority) is known, making and sharing projections of when work is likely to be done, and providing a checklist of and the metrics needed for tactical meetings (discussed later).
  2.   The duty of processing accountabilities. This duty is subdivided into three sub-duties. For projects and tasks that are part of your role, you have the duty to process it to a next clear action. If you are presented with requests for actions you have the duty to consider the request to take on the task if it fits into one of your accountabilities. And, if a request is made to impact the domain you control you have the duty to consider the request and may accept or decline.
  3.   The duty of prioritization.  This duty can also be sub-decided; you have the duty to prioritize or ad-hoc execution, a request for a tactical or governance meeting takes priority over execution except when there is a delivery constraint (remember that tactical and governance meeting get blockages out of the way), and  it is the duty of the individual to prioritize the circle needs and goals over the goals and needs of the individual’s goals.  Individual goal should be aligned with the circle’s goals

Tactical Meetings

The tool that makes operations work in Holacracy is the tactical meeting. Tactical meetings are for getting help when you don’t know what to do next, enable the circle to discuss operational issues, get updates on projects, find out what other roles are working on, give updates on your project and to ask for help when needed. Tactical meetings vary in frequency but is often are weekly.  The magic is not in just having a meeting, but rather in the structure and process.

The flow of tactical meetings follows seven steps.

  1.      Check-In Round – This round follows the same process defined for the Governance Meeting.  The round is about getting present and no crosstalk is allowed.
  2.      Checklist Review – List the recurring actions by discipline.  The review is a simple recitation of yes (if done) or no (if not done).  Checklist items are typically defined by the role; however, any other role can add items to the role if the role needs to know that an action has been taken on a recurring basis. Note—this is a brilliantly simple approach to making sure a role stays focused.  The facilitator reads the list and the role responds.  Simple explanations are allowed but NO open discussion.
  3.      Metrics Review – Metrics, either defined by the role or by the lead link, are reported.  Questions are allowed to make sure the data is understood but NO open discussion or other suggestions.
  4.      Progress Updates – This role is focused on changes since the last tactical meeting ONLY. If no progress has been made since the last meeting then the update should be simply “no update.”
  5.      Agenda Building – As with the governance meeting, agenda for the issues is built during the meeting.  Each member of the circle can raise the issue and put them on the agenda.
  6.      Triage Issues – Agenda items are processed one at a time by giving the owner of the item the time to engage others in the circle until the item is addressed or a next step is identified and accepted. The facilitator listens for the breakpoint and then moves to the next item. The secretary captures resolution or next steps.  When an item change leads to a need to change a role or policy, the item is routed to a governance meeting.
  7.      Closing Round – Each person reflects on the meeting one at a time without discussion.  Depending on the size of the circle I suggest ensuring that the agenda includes 5 – 10 minutes to address this step.

One of the important considerations woven throughout Holacracy is the need for transparency and follow through.  When an individual accepts a next step that acceptance represents a form of commitment. The commitment is to consciously track the issue, to consciously review the next step, and to consciously take the action as soon as it becomes the most important item among your possible actions on your backlog.  This feels very much like backlog grooming and management.

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).

All entries in the re-read:

Week 1:  Logistics and Introduction

Week 2: Evolving Organization

Week 3: Distribution Authority

Week 4: Organization Structure

Week 5: Governance

Week 6: Operations

Week 7: Facilitating Governance

Week 8: Strategy and Dynamic Control

Week 9: Adopting Holacracy

Week 10: When You Are Not Ready

Week 11: The Experience of Holacracy

Week 12: Final Comments