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Holacracy, Explained: An Illustrated Guide to Management-Free Organizations

Have you heard of Holacracy? If you're interested in start-ups, there’s a pretty good chance you've encountered this management-free organisational structure.
by Sebastian Klein | Jul 19 2015

Holacracy is a management-free way to run a company. It’s been around for a few years, but it may have come to your attention just recently when its inventor, Brian Robertson, released a book on the concept. Another place you might have recently heard about Holacracy is in the media when Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO, asked his employees to either fully buy in to the company’s holacracy initiative or take their leave (along with a nice little bonus to sweeten the exit).

Even before all the media buzz, we at Blinkist were fascinated with Holacracy. In fact, it led us to develop our own, lighter approach called Blinkracy and roll it out through our team.

One thing that we noticed along the way is that there’s a huge breach between how simple and efficient Holacracy can make work and how not simple it is to understand. Holacracy is a beautiful concept that makes organizations more effective and much better places to work. However, the mass of holacracy-only lingo makes the adoption curve high.

At Blinkist, we have a few years and nearly 1,000 business-books’-worth of experience making complex content accessible. And because Holacracy worked so well for us, we thought that it should be easier to understand so that more people can enjoy using it.

So, we’re trying something new to make it that way. The four animations below will answer four fundamental questions about Holacracy for you.

1. What is the main difference between a hierarchical organization and a Holacracy-based structure?

Traditional organizations are defined by rigid hierarchy and a strict chain of command through which decisions and information is passed from the top to bottom.

And this is how things change when you move on to a Holacracy. The hierarchical structure disappears and you end up with a formal structure that is fully focused on getting the job done.

2. How does the core idea of Roles and Circles look when it’s put into practice? What does that mean for the people inside the organization?

This is when everything gets a little more fluid. Instead of job titles, people take on flexible, ever-changing roles according to their skill sets and the current demands of the company.

3. What does it look like when a company evolves and changes within the Holacracy framework?

Between when we implemented Holacracy and today, our structure and circles have also changed. Here’s how:

As you can see, it all started off with a simple organization consisting of just four different roles (and only four people to fill them, by the way). When those roles became more complex, they grew into circles.

This didn’t just happen by chance, it reflected where the actual complexity grew:

Content started as a one-man show: one person reading books, summarizing them and creating the final copy for our book-summary service. After a while, there was an abundance of roles (and many people involved energizing them), such as “book selection,” “copywriting,” “freelancer recruitment” or “proof-reading copy”

Later, a marketing circle evolved, clustering all the activities we undertook to market our services to the outside world. When we decided to focus on content marketing and create our own online magazine Page19 (now Blinkist Magazine), the marketing circle turned into the circle Page19, got some new roles, and shed some to the bigger company circle.

As organizing people and roles became more and more important for our company, a new circle, Organizational Excellence, was created. Among other things, it was devoted to streamlining the change towards a more Holacractic system.

Since the tension (in Holacracy, a neutral term used to to describe a person’s felt sense that there is a gap between the current reality and a potential future) arose that content and product development are too disconnected, both content and tech were merged into a bigger circle, called Product. This “mother circle” now aligns all activities contributing to what we bring to our users in order to make sure they get the best quality we can deliver—on both the app and the content sides.

Later, all growth activities were merged into another mother circle, called Growth, which is now making sure that our product is doing more than improving—it’s getting better and better distributed to the outside world, too.

All in all, Blinkist ended up with a fairly simple organizational structure that allows us to quickly align on a few metrics that reflect what our company is here for: creating the best bite-sized learning service and distributing it to the whole world.

This is how Holacracy worked out for us, but every company’s experience is different; it depends on what your needs are. Don’t hesitate to experiment and iterate, you’ll find out what structure works for you 

If you’re curious to find out more, check out our e-book on our experience here, at Blinkist. I’d also love to hear from you if you have questions or would like to share some thoughts, so reach out and get in touch!

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