Zappos, Holacracy and Where to Now?

by | Mar 5, 2016 | Self-Organising teams, Teaming | 0 comments

I saw this article on the state of Zappos and Holacracy via LinkedIn “trending”

It’s very interesting and illustrates the biggest question that I had on reading about Holacracy and the various experiments: Zappos (ongoing), Medium (now abandoned), and others.

That question was about the very detailed and rigid rules for implementing Holacracy and the unusual terminology.    Does it need to be so prescriptive and so rigid?

Like many methodologies in theory, it’s very hard to deny the logic or value of each piece-part as you go through them line-by-line, assuming that you agree with their broader contextual assumptions.  But with Holacracy I feared that in practice, in the dynamic, messy, ebb-and-flow of the real world, these attributes would be a millstone not wings to make it fly?    Would people reject it at the surface because of this apparent complexity or foreign vocabulary.  Some people couldn’t read “A Clockwork Orange” (or wouldn’t) because there was a vocabulary to learn before it made sense.  Others reveled in the challenge.  I know many teams where it would be rejected on this basis alone.  And these days can you get people to read a long email or a 1,000 word blog post.  TL;DR is often the response.

How would it play out to introduce these rules: witness Agile methodologies like scrum: some people get it, others are reduced to canonical incantations, and others just run hog-wild with the freedom.

Now, with this article we have some harder data points, and they are mixed.  Some of Zappos feedback is extraordinarily positive, some negative.  Mostly it seems to divide along the lines of those who were up for the new order and those for whom the change was never going to work anyway.  And Zappos has found a way to filter its team to select its people for those who are most likely to embrace the journey.

There’s not much that’s novel about this reaction to problems in the delivery of organisational change: sometimes organisations choose to renew their people with those compatible with the end-state values, rather than work through the personal change process, which can be hard.  The kind of comments that the developer of Holacracy, Brian Robertson, are daunting: expect the change to take 5-10 years, he says.   What organisational management can focus for 10 months let alone 10 years.

It leads me to the next question: do we need to have such rigour at the beginning of the process: could we not just cherry – pick and come up with a “Holacracy Lite”.

The answer is: I’m not sure.  On the one hand, I believe less in prescriptive processes and more in principle-based action, primarily to avoid many of the problems that are evident in many of the examples from the article.  On the other hand, how do you lay out the pathway to enormous change that has the greatest chance of achieving the desired end-state.

And even worse (for rule-breakers), what if Holacracy’s detailed rules are actually complex hacks into the psyche of modern workers and fundamental human behaviours? What if there is really some secret sauce in the formulae?  In that case tampering with them will render them useless.  Again we see the shoddy and sad outcomes of half-arsed methodology or process implementation all too often, regardless of whether they are traditional or agile rules that are being broken.

The answer it seems is actually in a misquote (or perhaps just a mis-emphasis) within the article when reference is made to Seth Godin’s “The Dip”.  The article mentions that this book says something like “things will get worse before they get better”.

But I think this misses the point of “the Dip”: the fact that things get worse is just a symptom, not a rule to guide expectations or action.  The point of “The Dip”, methinks, is about how to work out when to keep going with a strategy or plan, in the face of these symptoms, or when to pull the plug.  We don’t want false positives (keep going when all is actually doomed) or false negatives (stop just when success is around the next corner).

The skill is picking when to hold and when to fold, and it’s a damned hard skill to develop. Tony Hsieh is obviously not only holding but doubling down on his investments so far (albeit that he’s already seeing some success, so the indicators are not all doomful).  Medium has decided to fold (I have no detail yet as to why).

The idea of self-organising teams excites me immensely, and the promise of the Holacracy end-state is even more amazing.  It’s the middle bit that worries me.

More power to Tony Hsieh for pushing on and I wish him and Zappos every success in the world.  Its an experiment, and an outcome, that is worth fighting for.  We may all be the beneficiaries … in a few more years time.

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Each week Adam writes about interesting and varied topics for Project Managers everywhere and curates useful articles, books and papers from other sources.