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Why Self-Organizing Is So Hard (medium.com/nobl-collective)
91 points by based2 on Apr 13, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 23 comments



Isn't the very point of self-organization and self-management that you can't read how to do it in a book? It has to arise organically and be built through shared interaction.

Especially for software companies, I've always found the idea of using external workflow and management software to be a little bit abhorrent, like wearing someone else's underwear.

It should be your way of doing things, and software you use to help you is just a way of codifying and automating that. In the same way we customize our editors, we should customize our workplaces so that they reflect the unique sets of people and activities they contain.

And of course, other people have pointed out the irony of a hierarchical mandate for change to a non-hierarchical system. I am reminded of an apocryphal story of drug testing at a university. They had a sampling of senior executives, professors, and researchers go first, to prove that it applied to everyone. When a substantial number of them failed, the testing program was quietly shelved.


Decent forms of anarcho-syndicalism aim at advanced, complex industrial societies. Therefore there can be lots of lit on running effective self-managing teams, replacing today's managerial lit.

For example, how do you run a good consensus meeting? Start from scratch and probably make elementary blunders, leading to sullen participants? Or grab say Starhawk's book and arm oneself with common patterns?

A book is just transmission of info. Societies which do lots of consensus transmit lessons somehow. (Via book, oral and/or experiential ways.)

(Disclaimer: I'm not very familiar with "holacracy", outside my simple google search.)


> For example, how do you run a good consensus meeting? Start from scratch and probably make elementary blunders, leading to sullen participants? Or grab say Starhawk's book and arm oneself with common patterns?

I completely agree.

Where I diverge from the path I see a lot of people take is when you start believing in those books with a fervency, without going through the process on your own. Use them to inform, not instruct.

A great example is the Toyota Production System book. People who go for 'kanban' and 'mura muda muri' and ape the terminology and methods have it all wrong - the whole point is that it's a system they built for themselves. It's great advice on how to build such systems, but if you just take it off the shelf and try to use it as is, again, it'll feel like someone else's underwear since it wasn't built to fit you.


Superb article!

Holacracy is clearly yet another in the very long list of attempts to synthesize a lot of great ideas into some ultimate solution which is then prescribed, trademarked, marketed, and proprietary so that the company can authorize "official" trained people who take their official training courses etc. The list of organizations like this is vast, and most of them offer some value and yet create fragmented and confusing overly-branded markets. For just one random set of examples: Alexander Technique vs Feldenkrais etc. etc.

Holacracy has some good ideas, but it is not a final end-point. It is just yet another place in the long history of organizational ideas. See the complex history of cooperative businesses for example.

Holacracy must become entirely Open Source, i.e. the software and the writings are all freely-licensed. The developers need to stop trying to control ideas that are 95% not original anyway, just a branded spin on existing ideas.

Anyway, this article at Medium does great job of dealing with things, and the comments there are great too. Thanks


Holacracy seems to be taking some good ideas and packaging them with strange ideas, like saying that people should not talk about personal topics at work.

What about the Brazilian engineering firm Semco? Follows a non-hierarchical, self-organizing structure. Thousands of employees, very successful. Described in two books by CEO Ricardo Semler: The Seven-Day Weekend and Maverick. http://www.amazon.com/The-Seven-Day-Weekend-Changing-Works/d...


He recently gave a very inspiring TED talk. That's how I've got to know about Semco. http://www.ted.com/talks/ricardo_semler_radical_wisdom_for_a...


One anecdote is not data and neither is multiple anecdotes Nobody would claim that you cannot have one successful company without managers. The question is, if you switch your company to this model, will it be more successful. Unlikely, in my opinion.


That memo sounds exactly like each "we need to embrace change"-memos I have read in old-style enterprisey enterprise where some external consultants are called in and make serious money by selling the latest and greatest management methodologies.

And every two to five years, the circle starts again with a different approach because people become numb to the bullshit language in which change is mandated from above.


Can somebody with some background explain why this Holacracy thing exists and what problems it hopes to solve? Also, what is this self-management etc?

The article seems to presuppose that we are in the loop of what is happening at Zappos - I for one have no idea.


Holocracy, as I've seen it defined, is supposed to be a non-hierarchical way of organizing a company. That is, teams are supposed to self-organize and independently do what is best for the business as a whole. Another prominent software company that practices holocracy is Valve Software, and their employee handbook [1] is one that I've seen mentioned by multiple people as a good implementation of holocracy.

The problem that holocracy is supposed to solve is that in a modern business environment, market conditions shift too quickly to allow management to have the sole responsibility for making decisions. Having self-organizing teams that take responsibility for advancing business goals, and allowing employees to shift between teams without getting permission from management first ("open allocation") allows the company to develop an internal "marketplace of ideas" which ensures that good ideas win out and bad ideas are killed before they consume too many resources.

Now does it work in practice? I would say that it's too soon to tell. Very few organizations have wholly embraced holocracy. Arguably the only one that's truly embraced the practice is Valve. While the idea of a non-hierarchical organization sounds great in theory, we must also remember that status hierarchies are one of the few things that are common to every human civilization. As a PM colleague of mine put it succinctly, "Middle school lunch rooms are holocracies too." I would say that a holocracy can work, so long as the corporate culture supports it... just like every other management strategy.


> status hierarchies are one of the few things that are common to every human civilization

Supposedly hunter-gatherer societies are fairly non-heirarchical (hunter-gatherer bands not tribal farmer/herders). They use humor to take down anyone who tries to be to bossy, let children and everyone else do what they like, but also strongly value sharing.

Peter Gray at Boston College has written a lot about this, for instance: https://libcom.org/history/how-hunter-gatherers-maintained-t...


That article breaks the "rhetoric devices per paragraph" scale.

I read the article and find it interesting, but I can't help but wonder why the author(s) felt the need to craft their text in such a meticulous fashion.


Disclaimer: I have no idea what holacracy is or how it works, this is the first time I heard the term.

But this:

> market conditions shift too quickly to allow management to have the sole responsibility for making decisions

rubs me the wrong way.

Making decisions and bearing the responsibility and accepting the consequences of past decisions, is the sole task -- indeed the sole purpose of management. If they cease making decisions then what good are they?

Now, if "holacracy" means that there is no management anymore, it may be fine; however

- the tone and the very existence of the memo seem to tell otherwise; there is something extremely funny about "mandatory self-organization"

- salaried positions are (to me) a little like a deal with the devil: you give up freedom, in exchange for peace of mind and not having to make too many decisions. This holacracy thing sounds like a trick by the devil in order to not hold his end of the bargain.


> what good are they?

People might reply that most management is, in fact, not good, or at least contributes no better than random chance.

Be careful about questioning the need for management, that way lies anarchy - literally! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mondragon_Corporation

I don't believe Holacracy is striving for anything like that. I think it's yet another faddish management theory with buzzwords to keep people - who would otherwise contemplate the uselessness of their existence - busy at large bureaucratic companies, much like the tides of reorganization and the rigors of standards compliance and change management do.


A person or group playing the role of management would likely still exist. The point is that it arises organically through natural leadership within the organically self-assembling structure. In fact accepting the consequences is much more real to this version of management in that the effects of poor decisions are immediate. In a self-organizing structure, their power can be swiftly removed by the masses. Meanwhile poor management in more rigid structure can survive much longer and is frequently untouchable.


>In a self-organizing structure, their power can be swiftly removed by the masses. Meanwhile poor management in more rigid structure can survive much longer and is frequently untouchable.

Meanwhile in a self-organizing structure you can get the shaft, because a good decision did not turn out too well.

I also don't see how this system solves the "politics" problem. I actually think it makes it even worse. People will premeditate and ploy much more, if a consensus is the only thing standing between them and power. As e result many bad decisions will be made in the name of compromise and favors.

"A camel is a horse, designed by a committee."


Self-organizing isn't hard at all. As a species, humans automatically self-organize in any group great than about 4 or 5 people.

The problem is that people self-organize to optimize some instinctual pattern, not to optimize towards business goals. The moment you start organizing towards some other goal than what we naturally do, you are no longer "self-organizing", period.

Holacracy and other mumbo jumbo choose to ignore this simple fact, and pretend like anybody can do anybody else's job and you'll find that once you start to map out how "self-organizing" organizations always work, they aren't in fact self-organized at all.

It's actually quite maddening.


I think this article highlights the real need for a managing layer. I know that many people, especially in this forum, will bristle and pop an artery just from reading that last sentence, but reality is that the problem does not lie in management, it lies with inappropriate management.

There is an interesting article, I believe from the HBR, which outlines the fallacy in today's perspective on management, especially in corporations, where the negative perspective of managers was incubated. The problem lies in that corporate culture sees management as a hierarchical and honorary title, rather than a specific task and function.

What that leads to is coders who would rather simply code and build being "promoted" to management, and hating it while also largely being unprepared for it's specific skill set, and you have managers, who, much like politicians, are more interested in the career and advancement than the actual function of managing. A managers function is to leverage, organize, and clear the path for the team they manage; their primary and sole purpose should be structure and lubrication, not micro-managing and strategic direction.


The link to Blinkracy was especially useful for providing two things:

1. A guide to introducing Holacracy to an existing organization

2. A simplified form a Holacracy that doesn't turn off people who aren't used to reading board game instructions

I highly recommend it. https://www.blinkist.com/page19/holacracy-ebook-download


"While we’ve made decent progress on understanding the workings of the system of Holacracy and capturing work/accountabilities in Glass Frog..."

Sometimes I like to imagine how my grandparents would react to phrases like this.


> "People aren’t ants (and organizations aren’t immune systems)."

Yes, see also "sociobiology", http://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/01/against-sociobiol...

"..the science correspondent of the New York Times , wrote a front page article for the newspaper, “Updating Darwin on Behavior,” outlining sociobiology’s principal claim. In the older view, Rensberger wrote, the insect societies of bees and ants and the hierarchies of monkeys were seen as “evidence for the remarkable variety of nature.” Now, however, researchers were coming to a “more profound conclusion.” Beneath the variety there lay “common behavioral patterns governed by the genes and shaped by Darwinian evolution.

..there is a book that cries out to be written -- a debunking of the whole “genomania” upon which sociobiology was largely based. Perhaps we should think of it as the astrology of the modern academy, with the fashionable microcosm now replacing the heavenly spheres. Just as mysterious emanations from celestial objects were once thought to shape character (with a role reserved for free will), so today mysterious emanations from molecular objects are thought to do the same (with a role reserved for the environment)."


I never understood the “genomania” approach, it's pretty clear that in science and technology we don't limit ourselves to the information contained in our genes, I don't see why they should have any weight either in morals or social organization.

I understand the value as descriptive tools, but even in social behaviors that may be very influenced by genes, once you are aware of those patterns they are very easy to detect and choose whether you decide to follow them or not, so even if we were 100% determined by our genes, once we learn the way in which we are determined we would be in the position to move in a different direction. Genes can't help us decide what to do, we will have to make the choice by ourselves.


Oh, this "self-organize" reminds me of a company I worked at where the management insisted on "only hiring people who are self-managing."

I realized, much later, that it was because management was completely horrible at management.

Why would a person who can manage and run themselves so well that they don't need management come to work for us?

I wasted many fewer years of my life there than some other people (including those management quacks) did, so I'm pretty happy about having escaped.




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