Written bySally McCutchion, originally published on LinkedIn 

At last night’s ResponsiveLeaders meetup hosted by Evolving Organisation, the conversation was enlightening, inspiring and at times challenging. We began with an introduction to Holacracy from Uschi Delian who has been a partner at EO for the last 3 months. This put us all on the same page in terms of what it was we were there to talk about. Uschi gave a passionate talk describing the key elements of Holacracy. She touched on the 38-page constitution, confessed with a smile to not having read the entire document despite working within a Holacracy (neither have I Uschi!) but then likened the experience to driving a car. In the same way that you know to stop at a red light despite not knowing every single rule in the Highway Code, you can function safely within a Holacracy without knowing every single rule and regulation by heart.

Uschi’s passion for Holacracy and for EO was very evident as she described the fluid processes, the feeling of elation that comes from being able to contribute so meaningfully to your work and the support of those around you, like flying in a flock of birds. It felt like her passion was warmly met by the audience of 10 ResponsiveLeaders and 3 more EO partners but it also became very clear that there are a vast number of unanswered questions to be faced by those of us who wish to see better ways of working infiltrate both the business world and our public sector organisations.

… and even after an hour of conversation it felt like the dialogue could have rolled on and on.

After an introduction from everyone we broke into 3 groups and even after an hour of conversation it felt like the dialogue could have rolled on and on. We came together at the end of the evening to share what we had learned. I will do my best to summarise the thoughts of the group but invite anyone who was there to comment on this post with your own views of the evening.

At my table, the conversation began with a killer question from someone with the kind of inquisitive mind that likes to break things/take things apart to see how they work and how they can be made better. In what situations does Holacracy not work? When is Holacracy not an appropriate organisational structure? What an exciting place to start…

We spoke briefly about whether Holacracy can be scaled to an organisation of say 100,000 people. Touching on the story of Zappos and also of Gore who operate their own version of self-organisation, the conclusion around the table was yes, Holacracy could be scaled for an organisation of that size. How you would go about the change management process is another conversation but we touched on the idea that you might need to re-shape your business before embarking on the implementation of Holacracy. Change before you adopt change, now there’s a barrier for large businesses that is likely to put any CEO off Holacracy for life.

Moving on from the topic of very large organisations we then spoke about the human characteristics that are needed to function well within a Holacracy. What are they? How do you recruit for them? And if you already have a full staff, how do you train these skills? We were certainly dealing with the big questions head on.

My own experience of the transition into a Holacracy is that it requires courage, trust and patience. The biggest challenge for me have been to trust the process of meetings that at first can appear rigid, formal and heartless.

Having an experienced Holacracy Coach in this case was invaluable for me as it meant that there was someone present who had an implicit trust of the system from whom I could learn. Once I became trusting of the process I then had to navigate my own fears around not having a ‘boss’ to tell me what to do.

It was a remarkably scary feeling to be new to a role and have uncertainties about what I should be doing. How enlightening it was to be reminded that I had full autonomy to fill the role in whatever way I see fit, providing I met the accountabilities of that role. Enlightening but scary once again as I have been conditioned since childhood into believing that someone else is better equipped than I am to make decisions on how I can use my skills and experience to fill a role to the absolute best of my ability. It is in moments like this that the failures of modern day organisational structures hit me so hard I am literally floored.

Finding the courage to ‘unlearn’ the systems that you have been conditioned to believe in but on reflection are the cause of a great deal of pain and suffering can be a painful journey in itself. So we have change on top of change and pain on top of pain. This is indeed a challenging conversation.

At EO, we are committed to supporting people who want to learn about and implement Holacracy and for those who are willing to step forward, I believe that the qualities that Holacracy requires within you can be both learned and recruited for. So perhaps the light at the end of the tunnel is that when you find the courage and trust the process of Holacracy, the return on your investment is huge.

To experience the fluidity and responsiveness that Holacracy provides, can give your organisation a competitive edge like no other. As an individual, to have full autonomy to bring your best to your work and exist in a way that brings joy rather than stress to your working life is revolutionary. But let me not over-sell Holacracy here because there were many more hard-hitting questions to tackle.

In summarising the feedback from other conversations around the room, there were so many compelling observations. From the issue of change-fatigued CEO’s to the fact that public companies require quick results for share-holders and we are therefore unlikely to see any public company embark on a change process that is likely to unsteady their results before it yields greater returns.

Change of this magnitude is likely to require both pain within the current system plus a vision that the new system is worth any initial heartache and risk. How long will it take to gather enough evidence to paint such a compelling vision of the future of Holacracy? Are those at the top of the organisation feeling enough pain with the current systems that they are compelled to make a change?

One of the conversations in the room focussed on a bottom-up Holacracy revolution with the idea that by creating Holacracy ‘pods’ within a large business, the principle can be proved on a small scale. It was exciting to hear that this is already beginning to happen although the results of which we won’t see for a number of months, if not years.

…there are tough questions to answer around how to support each other as human beings in the transition to more autonomous, free-flowing and fulfilling working lives.

Overall, my sense within the room was a genuine interest in what Holacracy has to offer and a desire to seek answers to the very real areas of concern. Holacracy is not the only model of self-organisation out there and even for the most passionate advocates of self-organisation, there are tough questions to answer around how to support each other as human beings in the transition to more autonomous, free-flowing and fulfilling working lives.

I would like to thank everyone who showed up yesterday evening and remind you that ResponsiveLeaders will be hosting a Holacracy taster evening in London on 27th October where you can experience a simulation of a Holacracy meeting and engage in more stimulating conversations. I hope to see you there: http://www.meetup.com/ResponsiveLeaders-London-Our-first-meetup/events/224761666/