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Holocracy versus Hierarchy - what are the pros & cons?

Holocracy versus Hierarchy

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I really enjoyed this recent article from Buffer about their experimentation with a flat structure, and how they found that some of their expectations were misplaced, with them now returning to a basic heierarchy.

What have been your experiences of self-management or changes to the management structure in your organisations? I'm interested to hear if Buffer's experiences are specific to their organisation or quite typical.

Nik Penhale-Smith has also written some interesting articles on his experience of having no managers - so it would be good to get more views on the subject!

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Perry Timms
By Perry Timms
19th Aug 2015 12:40

OK, from an observational point of view I'm dropping my thoughts on here to stimulate the discussion further. I'm not an expert in any of this, don't have evidential studies to back anything up and is based on my knowledge gleaned from others and some of my own experimentation with a community-based virtual organisation.

Hierarchies. I believe they've had their day as the ubiquitous model for work. I'm a big believer in Jon Husband's theory of a Wirearchy - interconnected, spiders-web like connectivity across people who work together and need each other. In truth, whilst we THINK hierarchies define our structure they simply report on it. There's always communities; cross "boundary" working and the dreaded matrix management. Fundamentally I believe hierarchies serve a purpose but also serve a power dynamic I no longer believe as appropriate for a modern working environment. Hierarchies have a feel of such rigidity, linearity and controlling tendencies they aren't adaptable or fluid enough for the ways we now work and live.

Holacracy: before Holacracy, I'd heard of a Heterachy via the fantastic Fons Trompenaars. He was talking about a messier version of the hierarchy where it was more an adaptive system that moved with the demands of the work. There was a lot I liked about this and as I discovered more on agile and scrum I could see how a heterarchy would serve things well. It felt like there was the "anchor" of a role and a system but the movement of an organism. Holacracy though to me is a mixture of the systems way of operating that you get in a hierarchy - some form of controlled, rigorous and even predictable sense but without the management power dynamic, personal bias/agenda/ego and creativity-aversion you get in hierarchical states. The circles way of operating allows for a fractal-like structure where it is formed around interest groups and professional expertise with forms of rotational / situational leadership and inclusiveness that COULD be voluntary.

If I were to explain it to my Dad (an ex-gas pipeline fixer and factory worker) I'd say this.

Hierarchy - I know what my job is and I mostly stick to that and nothing else and deliver that for the benefit of the company
Heterarchy - I know what my job is and I connect with those I need to connect with allowing for adaptation on my core role, for the benefit of the company
Holacracy - I know what my skills are, I have little or no core role to perform to and instead, I form teams with others to deliver what's needed for the benefit of the company.

Do I have a feel for what's best? Yes NOT JUST hierarchies. Please.

Hybrids of hierarchies even. Sociocratic, meritocratic and self-organised teams/units fascinate me and appear to get more soul and guile from people than boxed up, waterfall / water uphill hierarchies.

SO if holacracy were the only alternative to hierarchies I'd have that. Yet I feel a nagging doubt that holacracy has too much forced behaviour, language and formats for me. In an attempt to be a viable alternative to hierarchies, holacracies (IMHO) run the risk of not being what they should be, just the opposite of the other thing.

So I guess I'll nail my colours to a more communal-like, low-friction, low-bureaucratic model and go with Jon Husband's Wirearchy merged with Fons Trompenaars' heterachy (and a dose of sociocracy in there too).

I'm not just a fan of social media (as a sociocratic, wirearchical form of digital communication) because it's new. I'm a fan because it thrives on human exchanges, informality and emergent purpose. I believe leaders in heterarchical/wirearchical structures are at the centre of the thing not at the top. I respond to that and feel it's as it should be in the 21st century.

Bet you didn't expect a third or fourth element to this tale so would be interested in what others think.

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Replying to PerryTimms:
Shonette new
By Shonette
21st Aug 2015 09:39

What an excellent start to the discussion! I absolutely agree with 'whilst we THINK hierarchies define our structure they simply report on it.' - so much of the management I've experienced in the past has had most of their role defined by simply filling in spreadsheets and relaying what everyone else is doing, which never seemed that productive (or fun!) to me.

I'd also like to see structures a bit more flexible and communal - I've recently started working with the agile/scrum system and found it really helpful in defining roles as projects develop and situations change.

I also think that a less hierarchical structure means less rigidity in roles, so more room for personal development and collaboration, which can only be a good thing.

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Replying to Shonette:
Perry Timms
By Perry Timms
21st Aug 2015 11:07

Shonette - thanks for the comment. You're clearly seeing the benefits of a looser but none the less focused way of working and that's great confirmation for someone like me who believes in it.

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By legricec
26th Aug 2015 13:45

I think one thing all of the models mentioned have in common is that they all require continual work, checking in, communication and feedback. While I might have a preference for a certain model, I think if certain elements are present, the model is more likely to be successful.

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Replying to legricec:
Perry Timms
By Perry Timms
26th Aug 2015 14:02

Yes Claire. Checking in, stress testing, probing and the likes ALL essential on any team / unit working on a modelled approach.

I'm reminded of the extensive de-briefing that occurs in military exercises proving the merit that in really intense circumstances "what happened and how can we make it better". This equally applies to periodical assessments of the way things are working and that it's anyone and everyone having responsibility to shape and challenge things.

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