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Holacracy: a new human-oriented method of governance?

eric hecker
Interview with Eric Hecker, collaborator at talkSpirit, April 2017


What is your position within talkSpirit?

That’s a good question. There’s always a difference between what you are in the sense of your job description and what we are in Holacracy. From the outside, I’m an Account Manager, and my main job at talkSpirit is to support a portfolio of customers, particularly key accounts, and to ensure that they’re satisfied. This role allows me to work closely with customers and the team in charge of developing our product. We offer a corporate social networking solution that is one of the leaders on the French market.

How did you find out about Holacracy?

Through Philippe Pinault, director and co-founder of talkSpirit. He is a ‘real’ entrepreneur who, through his experience and the companies he has founded, thinks a lot about the way our working environment is evolving and the future of our professions in organisations. You might think that it was only his decision that led us to Holacracy, but in reality we were looking for a different way of working that would enable our employees to free themselves, to exploit their potential and to feel good about themselves, so that the organisation could move forward in the best possible conditions. It was a path that led us to this, because previously we had already tried to put in place an organisational structure that resembled Holacracy (more horizontal, with circles, more freedom for employees, more effective meetings) but without a framework and therefore without success. Drawing circles on a board instead of a pyramid to represent the company’s management system doesn’t change working habits overnight, it was a good approach but too theoretical. When our manager discovered Holacracy through iGi Partners and Bernard Marie Chiquet, the initiator of Holacracy in France, he discovered a tool that we could all rely on, and this technology was presented to all employees to launch the experiment.

How long have you been practising Holacracy?

I spent 5 years at talkSpirit. TalkSpirit has been using Holacracy for 3 years now.

Why did you choose to work with Holacracy?

I didn’t choose it, I was attracted by an innovative and liberated company, but I didn’t know that we would be launching Holacracy after I arrived. I was lucky enough to get to know the company before and during the implementation of this mode of governance and to see its effects afterwards. Basically, deploying Holacracy doesn’t change the way we work on a day-to-day basis, it’s a technology that enables employees to adopt practices that will enable them to perform better, but the implementation of Holacracy has more impact on the form than the substance.

What is your company’s raison d’être?

The aim is to become the benchmark product for collaboration and communication within agile organisations, in particular by offering them a unique user experience.

Have you ever worked for a traditional company?

At talkSpirit (before Holacracy was rolled out), but not outside. What’s more, I can’t see myself working in such companies, I need a certain amount of autonomy in my work.

Holacracy organisation

Do you distinguish between roles and people?

Absolutely, it’s important to distinguish between the person and the roles they fulfil. It’s common sense. So when I’m talking to a colleague, it’s important to specify which of their roles or which project I’m talking to them about. To give an example from everyday life, it’s like addressing a police officer who’s giving you a parking ticket. Even if you’re angry, you’re addressing the police authority and not the person, and it’s important to make them understand the cause of the disagreement in order to settle the dispute. Well, at work, this is also the case: we address the role and it doesn’t matter who is under the hat, for all exchanges without exception. This is a respected practice in Holacracy. The distinction between the person and their roles is great because it allows you to stand back from your actions and not feel attacked, it reduces affect. It also makes it easier to understand that we’re only being addressed in the context of the projects we’re carrying out for the organisation: just because we do things badly doesn’t mean we’re a bad person!

What are the effects of multiple roles on an employee’s work?

I play a multitude of roles, around ten or so. There are no special effects. It brings greater clarity, precision and transparency. It doesn’t matter how many roles there are, an employee can have a few or a few dozen. The important thing is that employees have enough time to energise all their roles, and that they manage their priorities well. Thanks to these roles, the tasks described for the employee are in line with the work he or she actually does, unlike the job descriptions that change very little in traditional organisations.

How important are organisational processes?

They are a necessity if Holacracy is to work. Meetings, decisions and projects need to be processed and structured. Holacracy is a set of rules, a technology that needs to be applied to the letter in order to work. That’s why we rely on the rules of the game described in the Constitution, which determine the way things are done: in Holacracy, it’s the Constitution that has the power. I would add that if you don’t respect this constitution strictly, you’re not doing Holacracy, you’re doing something else.

What difficulties did you encounter when setting up Holacracy? (Triage, strategy, governance meetings, etc.)

We didn’t encounter any particular difficulties. In fact, at the outset we followed a very rigid process. In a meeting, for example, there are different roles filled by the participants, then there are stages to follow rigorously, including the one with the items on the agenda, and finally the closing round where everyone has their say to bring the meeting to a close. So no, it’s not tricky. You just have to get used to it at first, but it’s not difficult – anyone can integrate these processes.

Does it take time to integrate these mechanisms?

It’s difficult at first, but that’s normal. Holacracy is like a sport: you have to get it right! And to get it right, you have to repeat it many times to correct the mistakes. Everything is new, you’re discovering a new world, and it takes a bit of time and support to feel comfortable with Holacracy. I don’t think you can start using Holacracy on your own without the advice of people who have experience of this technology.

How effective are these processes?

In Holacracy, everything is geared towards the company’s raison d’être. The circle is a role in itself, but also a set of roles. Within this circle, there is a strategy, and within that strategy there are a multitude of roles. These roles interact with each other. Holacracy is a living organism. This whole organism is what we call holarchy: the impact of cells with each other but with a common objective: everything must be geared towards its raison d’être. Just as when we cut ourselves we heal, in Holacracy when tensions arise everything is done to restore them. There are very few obstacles and everything is geared towards the overall success of the organisation. I would say that the processes bring agility and rigour to the organisation.

The employee position in Holacracy

What meaning does Holacracy give to your job?

Holacracy helps to give meaning to the organisation because it helps to define the purpose of the different roles and entities in the organisation, and the strategy is also clarified. In Holacracy, a circle is a set of roles, with the purpose defined for each of them, Holacracy gives meaning to our work. The roles’ areas of authority and accountability are also clearly defined.

Is working in Holacracy a plus or a minus?

I’ve been working with Holacracy on a daily basis for several years now, and I’d like to give you a brief feedback. I know what levers to adopt to resolve the difficulties I encounter. I can have an impact on the governance of the company at any time, I can create roles or change them when I see a gap. I can see all the projects in progress and the authority of the other roles in a transparent way. I also know that if there are problems with human resources, I have levers at my disposal, because recruiting someone or letting them go is within the realms of possibility. All this despite the fact that I am neither a shareholder nor the founder of the company. Finally, and most importantly, I don’t have to do all the things I’ve just listed if I don’t want to. Holacracy doesn’t force me to, it simply gives me the opportunity to invest myself endlessly in the organisation if I want to. I’d say that it’s a plus to work in Holacracy, particularly for people with a strong entrepreneurial character who don’t like to have limits imposed on them. Others may be more comfortable with more traditional systems.

How has Holacracy enabled you to take on more responsibility?

In reality, more than permission, it forces us to take on greater responsibility. There is no longer an n+1 or n+2 to validate the work. It’s more empowering. Everything is transparent, you can’t hide without being quickly exposed, the whole organisation is aware of our projects.

Not everyone is born to work this way. Some people feel the need to have their work validated. In Holacracy there is no one to validate the work of others, and everyone in the circle can have their say on the projects that concern them. The manager as we know him is the one who takes the decision or acts as guarantor on behalf of someone else. His absence from the chessboard forces us to become more responsible in the actions we take and to move our pawns forward ourselves.

What impact does the absence of a manager have on the organisation?

We’re not doing away with managers, we’re ensuring that they fulfil a more operational role. So in Holacracy, we find “managers” in other forms. They may have coaching roles in different areas, be in charge of performance indicators, defining roles, or drafting processes. In this way, they remain guarantors of the company’s good health and have an impact on the organisation’s governance. But they do so in the same way as other employees. Holacracy is about getting back to basics, and it’s true that managers also have to get their hands dirty.

How important is employee development?

Employees are freer to make their own choices in a company that practices Holacracy than in a traditional company, where they are confined to certain tasks and superiors who decide for them. For example, if I decide at work that I want to spend more time watering the plants, I can do that. On the other hand, if that role doesn’t suit me or if I can’t devote enough time to it, then I can resign from that role or bring a tension to a meeting. It’s simply another way of working, not necessarily the right way or the wrong way, it’s just new. So naturally it allows you to discover other horizons, to be more autonomous and to enrich your daily life. The tensions you encounter are brought out into the open, and you’re able to speak up more freely and with more respect.

What do you think of the freedom given to employees?

When Holacracy is adopted, once the barrier of having to integrate new processes has been overcome, employees feel freer, particularly because everything is transparent and there is no longer any opacity or politics in decision-making. So what is freedom in the workplace? The relationship between employees and their employer is first and foremost one of subordination. If I had to define it, I’d say it’s the right to do whatever I want, as long as it doesn’t bother any of the people I work with. It’s common sense and that’s how we work in Holacracy, so we are infinitely free. It’s to counterbalance this freedom that we have to respect rules, domains, policies and above all the Constitution. So yes, the employee is free, but it’s a controlled freedom.

Photo by Tyler Mullins on Unsplash

The place of people in Holacracy

How does Holacracy combine performance and people?

It’s very closely linked. You need to find the right people, those who ‘fit’ with the organisation and the roles to be filled. If people respond well to what is expected of them, the organisation will perform better. Generally speaking, Holacracy is a tool that enables performance.

Holacracy is about fulfilling roles, there are no political games or strategies, it’s not hypocritical. In my view, the big difference between a traditional company and Holacracy is that with us you won’t meet that person who, just because he or she is above you in the hierarchy, can destroy or change everything with the snap of a finger. We are all at the service of the organisation, not our own personal ambitions. So when employees are assessed by their peers, it’s as much about their performance in their various roles as it is about the fit between their values and the ‘human’ values required to work within the organisation. This set of values was defined beforehand by all employees during a seminar.

Where does the raison d’être lie in relation to the human being?

The human being is the first vector for achieving raison d’être. The raison d’être exists no matter what, and to achieve it you need a human being. If human beings feel good, then they are the right people in the right organisation. If people are compatible with the organisation, then we’ll be able to achieve good results more quickly.

What place is there for affect and emotion?

Anger, stress and anxiety are emotions. When we experience them at work, something is not right. In this case, we have a duty to bring these tensions to the meeting and deal with them. All emotions can potentially be dealt with in a meeting and heard by everyone. In the same way, if I’m feeling positive, if I want to celebrate an event, I can open a bottle of champagne with my colleagues. And if I don’t feel good about the organisation, I can leave. In this way, people and their emotions are not left to fester, quite the contrary.

What systems has your company put in place to benefit human relations?

Holacracy strengthened ties when it was launched. When we set up Holacracy, we separated ourselves from employees who were not in agreement with the organisation’s raison d’être, which is an essential step. In fact, this created a core group of employees who were in agreement with each other and with the company project. After this transition phase, which I think is essential, we created a core group on which the organisation relies, and we feel good today. Different roles have been created to ensure the day-to-day well-being of our employees, and to monitor their HR activities (interviews, appraisals). We did a lot of work on HR processes after launching Holacracy because we realised that there were shortcomings in this area and that decisions could now be taken by a committee rather than by a single person. We also do regular after-work or team-building activities, and as in many companies, beer and sausages are a great team-builder.

How would you describe the type of relationship you have with your colleagues?

They’re very good. As time has gone by and we’ve been through things together, it’s created a bond between us all. We work as a tight-knit group towards a common goal. Naturally, friendships have developed. I have no problems with any of the company’s employees.

What is the role of the collective?

We only play as a team. We are people at the service of the processes and the organisation.

Holacracy in the future

What type of organisation do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

None of them (laughs). I don’t see myself in any particular type of organisation, but in a way of working that suits me and the projects that are close to my heart. I could very well work for a large group as well as a start-up, and not necessarily in a liberated company or in Holacracy.

What do you think the organisations of tomorrow will be?

Agile organisations can only continue to develop. Holacracy will continue to thrive as companies increasingly turn to new ways of working together. We live in a working world where many people stress that old-style management is doomed to failure, yet in 2017 the vast majority of organisations are still applying the models of the last century, and change is slow in coming. Tomorrow’s organisations will be those that know how to organise themselves in the face of the changes we are seeing. Every organisation needs to find its own balance, its own way of organising itself and its own way of working. All organisations need new rules of the game, but I don’t think Holacracy is the solution for all of them.

In which cases would you recommend Holacracy?

It depends on the organisation. It depends on people’s daily lives and the way they work, and other criteria too. I don’t recommend Holacracy to those around me any more than I recommend my political opinions or my faith. I want people to be interested in it, but I don’t want to be the preacher, the guru of a system on the pretext that it works better than another, that’s suspicious. It’s a path that should lead us to tools like Holacracy. I would simply recommend that entrepreneurs who are thinking about it take the plunge, because changing your working habits is always a unique experience.

Can you give me 5 words to describe Holacracy?

Interview conducted by Marie CONDY, as part of her research dissertation carried out for INSEEC Business School (2016/2017 academic year).

To go further, I invite you to watch this short video of Philippe Pinault, co-founder of talkSpirit, who gives us his feedback.


Nova Consul

Héritière de l’institut iGi créé en 2008 par Bernard Marie CHIQUET, Nova Consul est un institut de recherche et de pratique, et un centre de formation au management qui s’adresse à tous types d’organisations et accompagne les leaders engagés souhaitant évoluer vers une nouvelle façon de diriger centrée sur la création de valeurs.

Dès 2010, elle importe l’holacratie des Etats-Unis et est une des 3 sociétés au monde à être accréditée “Premier Provider” pour son rôle privilégié dans sa distribution et son développement, et la seule entreprise en francophonie habilitée à en délivrer les formations et la certification.

En 2019, suite à l’accompagnement de plus de 150 organisations en France, Europe et Amérique du Nord, de toutes tailles (de 2 à 800 000 personnes) et dans tous les secteurs (industrie, informatique, commerce, bancaire, agricole, recherche, publique…), elle formalise le Management Constitutionnel®, un nouveau modèle sur-mesure et augmenté, qui adresse les 6 territoires de la transformation des organisations.

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