I was invited to share on the adoption of the Holacracy organisational system by Liip in a recent online gathering of the Siemens Grow2Glow network. It gave me the opportunity to think about the impact that Holacracy has had on the digital agency, its culture and the way we work in it.
I first focused on the negative impacts, the things we need to fix, but then realised I wasn’t fair to the reality: the benefits outgrow the challenges by far.
Thinking of it, and having had the opportunity to be in the company through several “eras”, I realised how much things have changed. I have no scientific evidences of what I am sharing here, those are things I experienced and observed. A personal view.
Liip always had a strong focus on values and human-centeredness: ethics always had a say, collaborators also. And before the adoption of Holacracy, we benefited a lot from the introduction of the Scrum agile framework (2009) and later from cross-functional teams and guilds (~ Spotify model, 2012).
That was before the founders adopted Holacracy (2016), a period of time which I will refer to, in this post, as the “partners-era”. Family-like dynamics were the norm, partners were the “elders” of the organisation, employees the “grown-up children”.
The period since our adoption of Holacracy will hereunder be coined the “holacracy-era”.
Entrepreneurship in the partners-era summed up to partners deciding on life and death of the offering. Adventurous workers had to pitch their ideas and go get buy-in and approval from the partners.
In the holacracy-era, things are different: services are launched out of the initiative and authority of any employee, creating a momentum that attracts collaborators and clients. In the last two years we have indeed added several services to our portfolio through individual initiatives, and more are incubating.
If it has gotten ok to launch things, it’s also ok to stop things. In one of the circles I am involved in, we launched a new consulting service a few months ago, thinking it was a great complement to our existing offering. Although I still think it was, it turned out the market was not at the rendez-vous. We took the opportunity of someone leaving the company to consider dropping that new offering.
In the partners-era, I would have had to raise awareness of the partners to stop the thing — I wouldn’t have had the authority to do so — and the partners would have probably felt compelled to adopt a parental posture: “you should have known better”, “be careful next time, Ben”, “what will the clients think?”, “how should I now communicate on that?”, …
Nowadays: I sensed the tension in my role in that circle, and took the initiative: first seeking advice from the ones impacted, clients included, and envisioning with them the possible scenarii. Then I made up my mind on a “closing” scenario. Yet, I sensed the need to give the rest of the company the opportunity to react and potentially object on the decision before I would finally enact it. After all, I wasn’t sure all impacted persons had been involved.
I launched an integrative decision process on our internal messaging app that read like: “In my role X, I’m about to close service Y, read more in this doc (link). Today you can ask questions, tomorrow you can give feedbacks, thursday you can raise objections.” It all went very well. Those who cared or were loosely impacted decided to participate, the other ones didn’t feel compelled to participate — great relief — and we closed this service smoothly.
In the partners-era I participated and was impacted by several meetings during which we “reshaped teams”. In such meetings we would list all people in the office, and then try to shape a certain amount of “balanced” teams out of them.
In this Holacracy-era: we don’t “gather and redistribute the cards” anymore. Teams evolve slowly, roles and people come and go organically.
An interesting example: a team of 20+ had a very rough year, their financial performance was bad for several months. The team could not agree on how to change things: should they focus? and if yes, on what market, technology, value proposition, …? Disagreement and the implicit need for consensus prevented the situation from evolving.
What unlocked the situation was that some people from that team literally raised their hands and pitched: “I wanna launch a mini team focused on tech X, I have the passion, we can make it happen, who’s in?” A few joined. Others saw the drive and copied: “I believe there’s a market for Y, who’s in?”. The big team slowly dissolved into smaller teams, that were more focused and with clearer motivation and purpose.
The big team had re-purposed itself into smaller ones.
In the partners-era my job in the company was forcefully important to me, because it was my only job within the company. Like most employees in this world.
This one-person-one-job relationship forces people to protect their job, in order to protect their belonging to the organisation, their salary, status, etc. And thus, organisations keep adding jobs, and almost never remove them, except in abrupt attempts: re-organisations.
In a holacratic organisation employeeship and roles are decoupled: I now see people suppressing some role they fill, because the role is not needed anymore. I see others merging their accountabilities in other roles, that they don’t hold. The roles that exist are there because of an existing need, not a past one.
I am not my roles and my roles are not me, getting rid of my role doesn’t directly threaten me.
With Holacracy, we see much more opportunities for employees to act in roles that fit their experience, motivation and/or talents. Talents, experience or passion get noticed, roles get proposed.
In the partner-era: just a few of us were interested in improving our soft skills. The only incentive would have actually come from a partner, in a talk like “Now that you are a Product Owner, you should improve on this and that soft skills”.
In this holacracy-era: I believe the talk happens within each of us: “Now that I am self-org, I sense the need to be a better leader/colleague/collaborator/…”.
We do see growing demand and attendance for trainings on social and leadership skills.
Those who process the annual Employee Meetings sense that there’s much less rants, and that the messages from the employees has moved from “We (meaning you, Boss) need to change this”, to “I know it’s in my hands to make this happen, where do I start?”
We moved from expecting change from others to expecting change from ourselves.
I wanted this blogpost to focus on the benefits we are seeing at Liip from having adopted Holacracy. A post on the challenges, again a personal view on them, will follow.