Is the Time Right for Self-Management?

SUMMING UP When and where will holacracy, also known as self-management, work best? James Heskett’s readers are conflicted as they respond to Zappos.com’s radical adoption of the less-is-more management structure. What do YOU think?

by James Heskett
Summing Up

When and Where Will Holacracy Work Best?

Holacracy, or self-management, is an interesting concept and not entirely new. It can work, but only under the right conditions. And its applications will be limited. That’s what one might conclude from reading responses to this month’s column.

The more thoughtful of them provide a primer on applying the concept. Deborah Nixon’s comment echoed several others when she said the idea has been around a long time in other forms, by other names. “The larger an organization becomes, the tougher one model is to implement. The time has always been ripe for self-management and there are always people who will poke up their heads and insist on managing themselves. But it isn’t a quick fix.” Others cited its long-time application in the London taxi system (Andrew Campbell), the hospital ER (M Iqbal Gentur B), and even Aboriginal societies in ancient Australia (Kai Akerberg).

Stephens Jr., who loves the idea, said, it does not come without extensive time, cost, and involvement in employee development. “I not only say yes (to the question of whether the time is right for self-management), but ‘it’s about time.'” Dyan Porter added, “Holacracy strikes me as a positive way to manage professionals, especially in flat organizations where job advancement is limited.” Brooks Tanner commented, “Regardless of its level of success at Zappos, this form of organization is the way of the future. The rapidly increasing complexity and unpredictability of our world is such that only a highly distributed decision-making structure will be able to adapt and respond effectively, she continued. “Most of us don’t think a centralized planning type economy makes sense. Why should it make the most sense for organizations?”

Others saw limited potential in the concept. As Edward Hare put it, “There are some people capable of managing themselves in a larger organization … but many who can’t… This strikes me as another of those ‘ideas’ promoted by consultants and academics. ” Frank Fabela added, “Holacracy in its form of each individual taking responsibility for their own self-management is absolutely necessary, however it is the responsibility of ‘managers ‘ to ensure effectiveness of the organization through coordination of those objectives. Pure holacracy … absent management is destined to fail.” Krishnan Mak was more succinct when he said: “Culture will eat Holacracy for breakfast.”

Many comments addressed conditions under which Holacracy might work best. “It might not be for everybody,” wrote Maria Rosa Serra, “but if you hire employees aligned with your values and pay them fairly, it seems an interesting proposal for both the company and the individual.” Juan Manuel Salas Guevara commented that the challenge in Holacracy “is a strong communication process from the top level of the organization that enables each member to understand the company’s vision.” Charlie Efford added that “The key to self-management becoming embedded is changing the mindset of the management team. Most corporations haven’t made this shift.” Denis Collet suggested “it’s all about clear goals and deliverables, and the metrics for success. Absent of these it’s bound to fail.”

These and other comments provided grist for the question: When and where will Holacracy work best? What do you think?

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