Brian J. Robertson on Holacracy: An interview by Bob Morris

RobertsonBrian Robertson is an experienced entrepreneur, CEO, and organizational pioneer. Forbes and Fast Company credit him for developing Holacracy, a comprehensive management system for governing and running organizations that are fast, agile, and that succeed by pursuing their purpose, free from the tyranny of top-down planning that is instantly out of date. Some of the many champions who have implemented Holacracy include Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, Ev Williams, cofounder of Twitter, Blogger, and Medium, and David Allen, the best-selling author of Getting Things Done. Brian previously founded a software development firm that won numerous awards for both fast business growth and innovative people practices. He is also the author of the book Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World.

He formulated the concept of holacracy and founded HolacracyOne, the organization that is training people and companies all over the world in this new system. Robertson had previously launched a successful software company, where he first introduced the principles that would become Holacracy, making him not just a management theorist, but someone who has successfully implemented a holacracy-powered organization. He lives near Philadelphia.Brian’s book, Holacracy was published by Henry Holt and Company (June 2015).

Here is an excerpt from my interview of Brian.

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Morris: Before discussing Holacracy, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Robertson: There are so many it’s hard to pick just a few. David Allen’s Getting Things Done method was foundational for me; I’m grateful to count him as a supporter of Holacracy now, and he was also kind enough to write the forward to my own book. Linda Berens’ work on understanding and integrating individual differences was also profoundly impactful for me earlier in my career. Beyond that, I owe aspects of my own development to the works of Barry Oshry, Peter Senge, Patrick Lencioni, Jim Collins, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Ken Wilber, Murray Rothbard, and Ludwig von Mises, among many others.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Robertson: Yes, I learned one of my most important business lessons on the day I nearly crashed an airplane. I was a student pilot working toward a private pilot’s license, on my first long-distance solo flight. All seemed well just after takeoff, but before long, I noticed an unfamiliar light on the instrument panel: “Low Voltage”. I wasn’t sure what that meant — they don’t teach new pilots much about the plane’s mechanics. I tapped the light, hoping it was just a glitch, but nothing changed. So I did what seemed natural at the time: I checked every other instrument for anomalies. My airspeed and altitude were good. The navigation aid told me I was perfectly on course. The fuel gauge showed plenty of gas. All these instruments were telling me I had nothing to worry about. So I accepted that consensus and effectively let the other instruments outvote the low-voltage light. I ignored it.

This proved to be a very bad decision. It eventually left me completely lost, in a storm, with no lights and no radio, nearly out of gas, and violating controlled airspace near an international airport. And this near catastrophe started when I outvoted the low- voltage light, which, it turns out, was tuned into different information than all the other instruments. Even though it was a minority voice, it was one I really needed to listen to at that moment. Dismissing its wisdom just because my other instruments didn’t see any trouble was a short-sighted decision that could have cost me my life.

In the months that followed, I came to an interesting conclusion. I was still making the same mistake — not in my plane, but with the team I was supposed to be leading at work. In fact, the near fatal error I made in the cockpit is one made on a daily basis in most organizations. An organization, like a plane, is equipped with sensors — not lights and gauges, but the human beings who energize its roles and sense reality on its behalf. Too often, an organization’s “sensor” has critical information that is ignored and therefore goes unprocessed. One individual notices something important, but no one else sees it and no channels are available to process that insight into meaningful change. In this way, we often outvote the low-voltage lights of our organizations. I wanted to change that.

Morris: book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Robertson: Economist Eric Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth was really powerful for me, and I quote from it pretty liberally in my own book. He looks at the process and mechanics of evolutionary design, and how that plays out in our economy; my book turns that same lens on how Holacracy enables evolutionary design within a company.

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. From Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Robertson: Well, that sure resonates – Holacracy is currently at the “dangerous idea” phase, and the revile we’ve seen from some in today’s management orthodoxy has been particularly strong. Holacracy is a disruptive technology, one which I think has the potential to render obsolete a lot of conventional wisdom and disciplines, and nobody likes to be disrupted. Time will tell if it becomes a new orthodoxy, and if it does…well, I’ll be among the first to go looking for the next dangerous idea to disrupt it!

From Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds the most discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but ‘That’s odd….’”

Robertson: Ha! Well, that aligns with the development of Holacracy itself. Its development was not about putting my grand ideas into action, but rather about experimenting until we found what worked in practice, and what worked was often counter-intuitive. So Holacracy today is not the system I would have designed and shouted “Eureka!” about — it’s the one we got to by trying a lot of stuff, some of which seemed pretty odd at first… but it worked, so we kept it. Sometimes it was only after further reflection and practice that we really came to understand why it’s counter-intuitive techniques actually work so well.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?

Robertson: That makes sense to me, and it’s one of the things Holacracy tends to help with – it makes it easier for more people to get involved with trying things, making mistakes, and learning from them more quickly, especially when on a team. In fact, I’d say the more we have to carefully pick “which” mistakes to make, the more we need to make that feedback loop of learning faster and the bar on “safe” mistakes lower, so we have even more opportunities to learn, by making more mistakes more quickly without sinking the ship in the process. I really do think Holacracy helps with that too.

Morris: The greatest leaders throughout history (with rare exception) were great storytellers. What do you make of that?

Robertson: Stories are how we make sense of the world – and that’s true for everything, not just what we usually think of as “stories”. All language creates a story; even your comment that the greatest leaders throughout history were great storytellers is, itself, just a story – and likely a useful one, both for making sense of some aspect of your experience, and for choosing more effective actions in your life. Our own sense of identity comes from the story that we tell ourselves about who we are. Reveal to someone that their self-story is in fact a lie, as all stories ultimately are – a mere representation of a reality too rich to describe – and they’re likely to have either a breakdown or a transformation. Or they’ll have both – and the transformation will come once they’ve found a new self-story that’s somehow more encompassing and more liberating. I think that’s why so many people who have inspired us historically are great storytellers – they’re helping us make sense of our experience, and of ourselves, in more powerful ways, so we have more freedom to choose more powerful actions. There is no greater leverage for changing someone’s world than changing the stories they tell themselves.

Morris: Most change initiatives either fail or fall far short of original (perhaps unrealistic) expectations. More often than not, resistance is cultural in nature, the result of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom.” Here’s my question: How best to avoid or overcome such resistance?

Robertson: I think many change efforts focus on changing people’s mindset, and then hoping behavior will follow. And I think that rarely works – when there are entrenched cultural norms and belief patterns at play, it’s incredibly difficult to effect sustainable change that way. The approach I tend to prefer is to focus on changing people’s behaviors, and then hoping a new mindset will follow (with perhaps some help and support for that as well). That’s the approach we take when helping companies implement Holacracy too – we focus on the needed behaviors in this system and reinforcing those, by helping people build new habits, even while we’re making their old ones no longer effective or useful. By helping people actually live and get work done effectively in a new paradigm, without pushing them to “get it” up-front or think differently, I think we paradoxically create much deeper and more sustainable changes in people’s mindsets, as those often follow the new behaviors.

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Here is a direct link to the complete Part 1.

Brian cordially invites you to check out the resources at this website.

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