Organize This


Imagine your organization has no formal structure. There are no named managers or supervisors. Authority is shared and administered by peers. Teams doing the actual work of the organization make all decisions about what is important and how to pursue their goals. Those teams self-organize, acquire resources, and negotiate how to interface with other teams.… I know, you’re thinking, “That’s intriguing. But …”

What I’ve described is a little like what Tony Hsieh at Zappos recently implemented. It’s called “holacracy” and it’s gotten a lot of press lately at The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and other places.

Holacracy is not just an idea. (See the note below on the etymology of the term.) It is an actual product of HolacracyOne, LLC. (That’s interesting and made me a little skeptical. As of yet, I have been unable to locate any scholarly research on the efficacy of holacracy.) The publications linked above provide a very good overview of holacracy and what Hsieh (pronounced “shay”) is doing at Zappos. (To be fair, the same approach has been tried at other companies, too, but the actual long-term results are unknown.) I’ll let you read those articles. (Please do, they’re very interesting.)

Instead of rehashing what others have said, I am going to use this subject to challenge you to some critical thinking about what leadership is.

The HolacracyOne Web site highlights four key features of holacracy:

  1. Flexible organizational structure: With clear roles and accountabilities
  2. New meeting format: Geared toward action and eliminating over-analysis
  3. More autonomy to teams and individuals: For individuals to solve issues themselves and cut through bureaucracy
  4. Unique decision-making process: To continuously evolve the organization’s structure

Let’s use their claims as a format for thinking deeper about strategic leadership.

Organizational structure. Formal or informal, intentional or accidental, documented or implied, every organization has structure. Have you ever sat down to consider why? Organizational structure is one of those things that is so ubiquitous that we don’t stop to think about why it’s so important. (Google “the importance of oxygen” and you’ll find a number of very interesting articles and videos.) Ask yourself, What is structure and what does it enable my organization to do? Conversely, ask yourself, how does our structure also hinder our mission?

You should also take time to consider what it means to be an effective and strategic leader of structure. Structure will form on its own without your help. Is that the most strategic approach for your organization? (Even organizations using holacracy put thought into how to organize.)

Meetings. Ugh! We all have a love/hate relationship with meetings. (Frankly, we hate meetings because of things we do to ourselves in those meetings. I’m not going to get into that right now. Read Patrick Lencioni’s Death By Meeting.) Meetings have an important role in your organization. They can be a very effective tool for communication, decision making, community and relationship building, development of trust, building of skills, etc. However, I said, meetings can have an important role. Whether they really do is up to you.

Are you making strategic use of your meeting time? Are you challenging all your associates to be effective in meeting planning and use? Are you ensuring that meetings bring value to the organization?

Autonomy. This is a tricky subject. I’ve heard it said that autonomy should be given to the degree that it is earned, plus a little bit more. Determining that appropriate level of autonomy is the hard part. I don’t have a magic formula for you. Autonomy, respect, and responsibility must be sorted out case-by-case.

As a leader, this is a critical and worthy use of your time: How you relate to your most immediate team members will determine how they relate to their teams. This is what drives organizational culture. The culture you create through autonomy, respect, and responsibility will impact overall organizational success more than most other factors.

Decision making. This is a lot like structure. It happens so much we don’t think about it. Decision making is a moment-by-moment activity, but do you consciously think about how you decide? Most of our decision making is done subconsciously and it belongs there. We should not allocate time for strategic decision making of many things. However, there are many other very important things we decide, not subconsciously, but lazily.

As a strategic leader, have you given careful thought to how you decide strategic issues? Do you have a plan for making mission critical decisions? (Did you know that there are a number of decision-making models?) As a leader, how have you engaged your team to be more effective decision makers? Make decision making a strategic choice, not an accidental occurrance.

Closing Thoughts
Is holacracy something for you to consider? I don’t know. It really depends on the unique culture and leadership talents of people throughout your organization. (My gut says that holacracy is a fad that will be found impractical by all but a very few organizations. That doesn’t mean it won’t work for you.) More importantly, the real issue is whether you are being a strategic leader. Are you consciously and intentionally exploring the challenges that holacracy brings to the fore?

Don’t react. Act. Intentionally. Strategically.

The term “holacracy” is a combination of two Greek roots:

  • hol: “whole” (Gr: holos)
  • cracy or crat: “government, rule, authority” (Gr: kratos)

Dr. Scott Yorkovich is a leadership coach and consultant. He works with individuals, small and medium organizations, and ministries. Contact him at ScottYorkovich[at] with your questions.

Photo by author.

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