Matt Hallmann
September 11, 2023
min read
Management & Governance

Addressing Common Criticism Leveraged at Holacracy

I remember the first time I met someone who doubted what we were doing.

It was at the end of a warm summer evening, six years ago. A couple of colleagues and me were sitting at the office, doors to the balcony wide open, legs on our desks. Overlooking the city rooftops from our desks, the world felt at our feet. Indeed, we got an investment, and we started to scale our operations quickly.

After the second beer, we started goofing around. About a new feature that we shipped, a client anecdote we had to laugh about, a new colleague and intern. We laughed about how our CEO dampened the sound in the office by hanging IKEA shower mats on the ceiling. He connected them with iPhone cables. Why not.

One colleague started talking about this new organizational OS we started working with. Holacracy. I had joined the company four months prior. It was new, refreshing, awesome, stressful, and horrible. It was new to us all, some dealing better with it than others. I had seen colleagues go silent in meetings. Sometimes there were some tears in the hallway. But until then, I had never heard anyone challenge it.

"Holacracy doesn't work," is what he said. "It's confusing, there is no career path, and the rules are hard to follow."

"But what if it does work," another colleague interjected. "What if it makes things better? Why not give it a try?"

It went back and forth for a good hour or so, by when the sun started to set. Finally, the criticism came down to a few points.

  • Holacracy is complex
  • Holacracy doesn't offer a career path
  • Holacracy bureaucratic
  • Holacracy is elitist

Since that evening, I have only gotten deeper into self-organizing structures. I have worked for many self-organizing companies. I have trained and coached people to be ready for self-organization. I have written and talked about it on many occasions. And while I do believe that Holacracy works, it can only work if we can criticize it.

I found those 5 points that my colleague made six years ago, the points that always come back in some form when talking about Holacracy.

Let's go deeper into each one to see how much truth holds and if, indeed, Holacracy doesn't work.

Holacracy is Complex

Holacracy is indeed complex. It has rules, meeting formats, guidelines on when to speak, and many other elements. It has a constitution!

Those elements might seem complex at first. And to be honest, they can remain challenging to grasp. But they are not different from a game of chess. Or a football game. Or any sport in that regard.

And while the above invites saying that people who don't like Holacracy, don't understand it, there is value in playing by the rules. 

Thinking back to that evening with those colleagues, I see that we missed information. But, in the weeks and months that followed, our understanding of the rules increased. And the supposed complexity vanished. 

With better onboarding and stronger support systems, rules became easy to grasp. 

Is Holacracy complex? Yes. 

Is any other organizational system complex? Sure. 

Does this make it less effective or beneficial? No.

Holacracy Doesn't Offer a Career Path

Holacracy doesn't say anything about careers or personal development. It doesn't tell you how to organize development and learning, nor does it hold you back. It's neutral.  

The criticism that Holacracy doesn't offer a career path is valid. Holacracy is a framework that lets you do anything with it that you want. That means that you, as a team or organization, need to think about how to fill this in. You can do this in any way you want, like in any other organizational framework. 

Most organizations will fill this with formal and informal training. Yearly reviews, salary steps based on seniority, roles, progress can also be a part of that. The world is your oyster.  

There is some fair criticism, though. 

How does a career path look when all you hold are different roles? 

How do you advance or step up in the hierarchy when you already are a Lead Link? 

How does having many roles translate into more seniority? 

How does this translate into more recognition and a better salary? 

There is no easy or straightforward answer to these questions. Depending on how mature or immature the organization is, these things are embedded in a framework.  

From personal experience, I know that the opportunities for self-development in Holacracy are enormous. 

Switching roles and learning many things at the same time can be liberating. Learning how to work autonomously is a skill that is a lifelong advantage to anyone. And not needing to become someone's boss, and then the boss's boss, is liberating and refreshing. 

How would you like to do what you enjoy, without too much thought behind it? 

Holacracy is Bureaucratic

If we define bureaucracy as "management or administration marked by hierarchical authority among numerous offices and by fixed procedures," then Holacracy ticks at least part of the box. 

It is wrong to think that there is no hierarchy in Holacracy - there is. 

But it's limited in scope, and the organizational set-up makes sure that information can flow freely between different circles. So in that sense, it might be seen as part bureaucratic. But it doesn't come anywhere near what we commonly call a bureaucracy.

The second part of the definition does apply to Holacracy since it has a certain amount of fixed procedures. There are procedures and rules on how to elect specific roles. There is a constitution, which is a practical document that helps with fundamental questions. 

And yes, there are procedures on how to hold operational and organizational meetings. These are also better known as tactical meetings and governance meetings.

What isn't true is that Holacracy is "an administrative system in which the need or inclination to follow rigid or complex procedures impedes effective action." 

If anything is true, Holacracy favors action. It is constructed in a way that makes change possible for everyone in the organization. As a result, all employees become change agents. 

The procedures are not complex, and the rules are not rigid. They can be adapted as organizations see fit. 

If anything - Holacracy is procedure-based and softly hierarchical. I don't think anyone can call that bureaucratic. 

Holacracy is Elitist

It's been many years since that evening at the office, pondering if Holacracy is the right way to go. Finally, I can say that Holacracy does work. But I've also been questioning for whom it does work and for whom it doesn't.

I've been thinking and writing about cultural differences and Holacracy.

How can a system created by a white American male work for people and organizations who are very different?

How can people who aren't familiar with organizational design benefit from Holacracy?

And how can we make sure that Holacracy isn't an elitist game for the few?

The criticism that Holacracy is elitist is the only criticism that I cannot counter. 

Yes, some examples prove the contrary. But they are few and isolated. 

One only needs to attend a meetup to see the lack of diversity. One only needs to look at a map to see that Holacracy is not a worldwide movement. And one can only wonder how we can break down the walls that surround the domain of organizational design to make it available for the many.

The answer isn't easy, but I believe that we need to involve those that are not included now. That can be in organizations and countries. That can be in education level and cultural background. 

So does Holacracy work? It very much does. 

Is there criticism to be had? Of course. And only by looking at criticism, acknowledging the validity, and changing the system, is it possible to create a non-elitist, widely available framework that works for the many. 

I believe we are closer to that than ever before.

For more information and real life examples of companies practicing Holacracy, consult our in-depth guide to Holacracy: Core Concepts, Benefits and Limitations

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