Holacracy 5 years later. Some learnings about our transformation

  • Laurent Prodon

We celebrate 5 years of Holacracy at Liip! A good occasion to take a step back and look at our transformation with a critical eye.

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In 2015, I was part of the first Liip cohort trained at Holacracy. Just before leaving for training I had shared my hopes and dreams in a blogpost. Five years later, I accompany organisations that are also diving into organisational Agility, which gives me the opportunity to take a critical look at our own transformation and share some learnings. Hopefully, it helps you not to fall into the same traps :-)

About the transition phase

“Safe enough to try”

In a totally empirical way we decided to adopt Holacracy on the main criterion of "safe enough to try". It may seem suicidal to some, but it fits the Liip spirit: let's do it and see what happens. There were plenty of good reasons for the change, including the fact that the company structure was no longer adapted to its size. Unfortunately, these reasons were poorly documented, explained and communicated internally.

Result: incomprehension, frustration, and for some, the impression of being forced to do something without really understanding the underlying need.

1st learning :

  • Take the time to identify the reasons for the transformation.
  • Communicate (internally) extensively on this "why", explaining in particular why the current status is no longer desirable. Or even better: use this intention to open dialogues at different levels of the company.

About accompaniment

We decided to be accompanied in this transformation, but from a distance, and as little as possible. The main reason for that is directly related to the previous point: as we were in a "continuous improvement" approach, not very anchored in a clearly identified need, we did not understand the extent of the change. It just seemed like another step in our path to Agility. Therefore, the support offered seemed too expensive. Probably a question of (misplaced) pride as well...
In our defence, the offer of coaching in Switzerland was almost non-existent at that time.

Result: a lot of effort, little visibility, the impression of groping around without any real method and falling into all the traps possible. We got out of it, but what a job!

2nd learning:

  • Do it with coaching. Really. I'm not saying it because it's my job, do it with whomever you want, but get someone to accompany you.
With a special focus on leaders?

Getting support is true for transformation in general (change management), but also for the (former) management team. How can you imagine that they can find their new place and adopt their new posture without being accompanied personally? We did. I would advise against it.
The members of (the former) top management were brave, stayed in the background, and some of them had a hard time. It doesn't have to be that way. Of course, the former managers must learn to let go, but they must also continue to identify and process their tensions like any other employee. Accept that they have desires, frustrations and responsibilities too. Learn to give and receive feedback outside any hierarchy. Clarify how they want to continue to bring value to the company. Not easy without coaching.

Start where you are

Holacracy makes the structure of the company explicit. Being explicit requires making choices. Do we want to organise geographically (by office: Lausanne, Zurich, ...) or functionally and therefore grouping roles by units and topics ("Production", “HR”...)? Will marketing be a central entity or will there be one Marketing entity per market / team / unit? Will we organise our teams by product or by customer segment?

Initially, we had imagined starting from a blank page and letting the structure be created little by little. A nice dream… and a big waste of time!

The advice we give ever since, tirelessly: start by mapping what already exists, without trying to improve it during this mapping phase. Holacracy brings precisely the possibility of improving things as they go, once they are documented.

3rd learning:

  • start with the existing structure, however it may be, even it’s shabby now.

What is true for the roles is also true for the rest. Company strategy, working conditions, opportunities for further training...

The motto is: make things explicit to give them the opportunity to evolve.

Holacracy is not everything

The four spaces
Credit: The Loop Approach, link at the end of the article
This diagram of the four quadrants helped us to understand that Holacracy focuses on certain aspects (operation and structure, the right part of the diagram), but that **it was no magic recipe for all our problems**.

In addition to the operational aspect (how to make the value created by the teams transparent), Holacracy adds a new layer: governance. Where the structure of the company is made transparent, and evolve according to its needs. This is good. It's very good. It allows the teams to be totally autonomous and responsible in their organisation, both in terms of the work they do and how they organise to do it. But it's not everything.

These 4 quadrants gave us a first basis for understanding the different dimensions of companies. And allowed understanding that we shouldn’t expect Holacracy to give us solutions for the "Individual" space or the "living together" one (“Tribe space”). Even if in those dimensions as well many things have to evolve in parallel to the structural changes in order to achieve the desired self-organisation. For example: if there is no longer a manager to "triangulate" the problems, I need the courage to speak to my colleague directly about their recent counter-performances. And do it properly if possible...

Today with our clients we use more complete models to better understand which dimensions of the company need to evolve, directly or indirectly.

4th learning:

  • approach transformation in a systemic way by considering all the dimensions of the organisation.

Like other Agile methods, Holacracy has the merit of highlighting problems, without necessarily offering ready-made solutions. This transparency offers new discoveries for each step along the way: accountability, feedback, benevolence, ... I can't count the numerous “side-aspects” which have evolved in 5 years at Liip.

Results

After 5 years with Holacracy, I would not hesitate to say that Liip is a mature self-managed company. Despite this, not everything is perfect, and we continue to learn as we go.

Holacracy is not a magic solution, but it is a fantastic tool to build by experimenting: how to structure for value delivery, how to work on the notions of responsibility, trust, ... in an iterative way.

As you see, it hasn't been an easy way. But today we can gradually shape the company we want. It's a journey which is never ending. And that's great!

Interested in going on a "Holacracy" journey? Take these words with you:

  1. Be very clear on the "why"
  2. Find the right partner to accompany you
  3. Start with what already exists to evolve step by step
  4. Consider the aspects that must evolve in parallel with Holacracy

Source of the image: loopapproach.com/en/book


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