Holacracy’s 8 challenges10 min read

Holacracy's 8 Challenges - SpringestHere at Springest we’ve been using Holacracy, an Agile Development like management philosophy, for the past 2 years to help us organise the company more effectively. However, as all things new, we had some teething pains.

Ruben, our founder,  has composed a list of 8 challenges that we had to overcome whilst adopting Holacracy, plus our approaches in overcoming these problems. As a whole, we decided to learn along the way, to try stuff out and learn from our mistakes.

Spoiler Alert! Holacracy can be great, but it will be misunderstood at first, and it is rather difficult.

1. Holacracy does not tell you how to run your organisation

You wouldn’t be the first one to think that Holacracy will tell you how to run things in your organisation. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Sorry to all those founders out there that were looking for an easy-to-use management instruction manual…! Most of what’s in the constitution (which you formally sign as “power holder” when adopting it) is about how to decide how to run your organisation. For instance, there are plenty of rules on how to meetings, on which basic principles everyone has to adhere to. However, with those rules, your organisational structure does evolve. The challenge here is that you can feel like there’s a lack of structure or uncertainty. This can be a similar feeling to when you play a new game and your unfamiliar with the rules, all you need is a bit of practice.

Our advice: embrace the uncertainty. Try to use the process to create clarity. Thankfully, we have a seasoned Holacracy coach who help us with this, and we constantly reinforcing the idea that it’s OK to feel a bit lost when you have a tension but don’t know the solution.

2. Holacracy tells you exactly how to run your Organisation

Life is full of contradictions… There are lot of things you can’t do in Holacracy. Such as, telling people what to do, or ‘reorganise’ a department in one go, or setting sales target. Nevertheless, there are tools, which you will need to learn about,  designed to help you achieve these goals. If you’re still not sure on the best way to process your ‘tension’, you will experience some frustration, because the way you’ve learned to fix your problem is now no longer allowed.

Our advice: learn the rules! This might seem obvious, but we definitely should’ve placed more emphasis on this. Not just for our facilitators and Lead links, but for the entire team. If you don’t understand the rules, you can’t play the game. Remember, the goal of the game is to speed up evolution so you can run the organisation effectively.

Holacracy's 8 Challenges - Springest

3. If it looks like a manager, smells like a manager…

Even with the best of intentions, old habits tend to die hard. When adopting Holacracy, you will already have a structure in place, and things will hopefully evolve from there.

The problem here is that for Holocracy to be succesful, you have to unlearn a lot of habits that are connected with the old way of doing things. ‘Managers’ will be used to telling people what and, in some case, how to their jobs. For example, if a Lead link asks arole in their circle if they “could take on this project?”, the role owner asked might take this is as an order.Even if you feel responsible, you have to resist the temptation to take the lead by ordering people around.

Our advice: coach each other a lot. This is especially important for ‘lead links’ who were ‘managers’ before the adoption of Holacracy, this requires lots of learning and peer-feedback. The largest and hardest part of their job is to teach circle members to not consider them as a ‘boss’. We certainly haven’t solved this one yet and by writing this post is one of the tries to address this issue (hey guys ;))!

4. When Holacracy gives you lemons… make lemonade!

When the going gets tough, the tough gets going, right? In Holacracy most people end up energising multiple roles and are accountable for several activities within those roles. Lead links can set the current circle strategy (with input from all circle members) and can prioritise projects. Due to the distribution of authority, it can be difficult to quickly change course or force everyone to put their efforts on the same thing. You can then fall into the trap to ignore the process and pressure people the old fashioned way, even if there might be a way to change the course following Holacracy rules.

Our advice: try out different methods to synchronise individual efforts. Currently, we’re trying to make our strategies more concrete, and make it also clear and accepted that Lead links can change the priorities of their circle, thereby indirectly for other circle members’ projects. This shouldn’t be done all the time, as the people “in the trenches” tend to know what’s the best way to fulfil their roles. On the other hand, setting priorities does require a lot of perspective and judgement about the potential something has.

5. You can’t out-evolve the grapevine

Gossip and old fashioned corporate politics will still be part of your everyday working life, especially as some of your colleagues might not understand, like, or even trust Holocracy. One of the core ideas of Holacracy is that it’s about roles, not people. So you should be able to feel free to discuss tensions you have with how a certain role performs, without directly criticising a person. Easier said than done! In meetings people have to put aside their personal feeling, and focus instead on the tensions they have and try to solve them in the process.

Our approach: practice what you preach. Address people by stating your role and theirs (“I want to ask you in your role of X, to do this for me in my role as Y), and explaining the process for addressing other roles. For example, you can address a role directly even if they’re not in your circle. And if someone tells you someone should be doing something, remind them to check the accountabilities to see if they are entitled to have that expectation.

6. Learn the game by reading the rules, or learn the hard way

Holacracy is in many ways a serious game. It comes with big instruction’s manual – the constitution. At the beginning it will seem daunting to start learning them all. We organised a half day workshop for the entire team, and wrote some internal articles, but in the end we chose to do most of the learning on the go. Our Holacracy coach facilitated a lot of meetings, and in them explained the process and rules of the game. You will experience similar setbacks as with learning to play a game. There are two types of people: one who reads the rules first, and the other who just starts playing and doesn’t mind losing the first few rounds. And there are also two types of players: those who can and those who can’t stand to lose. And if you don’t know the rules as well as someone else, it might feel like you’re losing the game, and thereby the trust in the system.

Our approach: we should have placed more emphasis on learning the rules, and we’re correcting that now by doing more training. 9 of our colleagues attended a HolacracyOne’s Taster Workshop, and one of us went to the 5 day Practitioner Certification Training. We also created a new role – Holacracy Ninja – in our ‘Smooth Operations’ circle that has certain Learning & Development accountabilities, to spread knowledge about Holacracy within all the circles and not just from a person of ‘authority’.

7. Classical Creationism vs. Holacratic Evolution

Holacracy can be described as an ‘evolutionary algorithm‘, as it is supposed to have many random loops, leading to constant improvement. You must try to stop yourself from ‘designing’ instead of ‘evolving’, i.e. trying to come up with a big coherent system for organising work. Yet, at times, you may do just that to make quicken the progress. Especially when your organisation isn’t well versed in Holacracy, which is always the case if you’ve grown rapidly. The normal governance process will feel very slow and you may not have the time.

Our approach: We kept reminding ourselves to not be creationists. By using that word we are already evoking how we feel about it. However, we do sometimes allow ourselves to dream up new structures and systems so we can delve into each other’s ideas. Instead of talking about the solution (“this team should work like this, with these people doing this and that”), we try to focus on and talk about our tensions,  (“what exactly isn’t going well and why?). This forces us not to over-design and to not fix things that aren’t broken.

8. Keeping the faith

Funny how I use the word faith… Yes, Holacracy can sometimes feel like a religion, just like any other productivity or management philosophy. Especially when some colleagues ‘see the light’ and ‘get it’ and others are still blind, right?!
Wrong. Adopting Holacracy requires a lot of trust from the current ‘power holder’, and his colleagues must trust him to make the right decision in adopting it. It also requires trust among colleagues to stick to the rules and help or even protect each other when someone isn’t sure about the right process. Thus, you have to be sensitive about trust slipping away, and frustration taking hold of people and processes.

Our approach: start it as an experiment, but set a due date. We first said Holacracy was an experiment, and it was. However, as you go further in the process it’s important to stress that the intention is to keep using it forever. There’s no point in doing it half-assed. If you call it an experiment, make sure you set a due date and change the mentality after that. The extra training we did (after 1.5 years of working with Holacracy!) and speeding up our governance seem to be gaining trust.


Hopefully these challenges have given you a feel of what it’s really like to use Holacracy as a way operate your organisation, It’s been a very interesting journey for us, and it definitely hasn’t finished yet! We intend to keep sharing our learnings, so if this article raises new questions, feel free to leave us a comment. I am more than happy to elaborate!


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