Monday, February 1, 2016

Can Holocracy Work Inside Your Association?

Holocracy strikes me as one of the latest buzzwords--representing a generalized concept of super-charged success that everybody wants but doesn't really understand. And lest you think I am being elitist, let me say up front that I put myself squarely into that camp.

One definition of holocracy I've seen goes something like this: A flat organizational structure where each employee has the autonomy to choose what they work on, and has equal ownership over and a say in what’s created and delivered to customers.

When I read something like that, my brain immediately begins to contemplate the possibility of something like that working in my association. Not in an association--an association is an abstract concept that can come with any necessary set of preconditions to make holocracy work; but my association--my association is a concrete entity with an established culture and comprised of a set of known individuals, each with their own skills and biases.

That reality is why I titled this post "Can Holocracy Work Inside Your Association." Asking if holocracy (or innovation, sustainability, data-driven, or any of a dozen other buzzwords bouncing around the blogosphere today) can work inside an association is a waste of time. Of course it can. Given the right set of preconditions, holocracy, et. al., can work in any organization. The question is not can it work, but what are the preconditions it needs to work and do those preconditions exist in your organization.

I'm not going to even try to offer a complete list, but when I look at the above definition of holocracy, and I think about shaping the culture of my association in a way that would facilitate its adoption, the first precondition that comes to my mind is complete buy-in by the Board of Directors.

Because holocracy is not compatible with how our Board and its current governance function works. The Board defines strategic goals, it hires an executive, it approves annual budgets developed by that executive, it holds that hired executive accountable for achievement of those goals within the approved budget. These are generally considered best practices in the association world--clearly separating governance from management. But they make me wonder how compatible they are with the idea of holocracy.

I suppose that you could argue that holocracy as defined above can exist at a level below the Board. That an executive, operating in an environment like ours, could still set-up a holocracy within the organization--communicating the strategic goals defined by the Board, allocating the budget-approved resources to each individual, and giving them free rein to choose what they want to work on and an equal say in what's created and delivered to the members. Let them hash it out. The crowd is always wiser than the individual, right?

But even in that structure, I think the Board is going to have to approve that strategy, and it's going to have to show results without the accidental and intentional duplication of resources within the organization. Even smart and conscientious association staff are going to have disagreements about what tactics are showing results and which aren't, and if everyone has the ability to direct their own resources--or at least to vote on what is done next--turf battles and conflicting priorities are going to occur.

Don't get me wrong. Turf battles and conflicting priorities are not unique to holocracy. Every organization has them. But in the association model I described, the Board has put one person--the executive--in a position to decide and minimize them. As near as I can see, a holocracy subverts that intentional structure, so any executive in such a structure that wants to experiment with holocracy had better seek the input of her Board before doing so.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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