One Size Does Not Fit All

Updated: Sep 10, 2019

I have had countless conversations with people interested in implementing self-organization in their own companies, and all those I talk to almost always share one commonality: They don't realize how many different methods of self-organization are out there, nor that it is possible to create brand new methods. It is not uncommon for me to hear things like:

  • I want to implement X structure, but I want to drastically change how Y fundamental process works.

  • I like these few key pieces of method X, but I dislike these other pieces.

  • I need more/less structure for these processes in my organization.

  • I wish there was a way to do X in a self-managed way.

Every time I have these conversations, it results in me explaining that what they want already exists at other companies, and there are easily ways to organize their company in a way unique to their needs and wants. The majority of my personal experience is with Holacracy, but in my years of organizational development work, I've made an effort to study as many other methods of self-organization as I can find. Recently, I've become aware how abstract these concepts are to most, but also how invaluable it would be for everyone to be aware of.

So, below is my personal attempt at describing the three primary methods that stand out to me so you can see which would benefit you most, or even which pieces you can take from which to create your ideal organizational structure. It should be mentioned that, while I have extensive knowledge of and experience with Holacracy, I don't want to claim I'm an expert regarding any organizations I haven't personally worked in. If any of this is inaccurate, please do let me know so I can learn and promptly update this list.

Holacracy: A prefabricated, out-of-the-box, all-inclusive kit for self-organization built and regularly updated by HolacracyOne. It provides a framework that distributes decision-making power to everyone. Brian Robertson talks about it in a TedX Talk.

  • Pros:

  • The foundation of Holacracy is constantly being evolved by HolacracyOne. It is intentionally built vaguely enough that it can work for any industry, department, or team. Every possible "What if?" scenario that could arise in your organization is already addressed within the rules to prevent any loopholes in the system.

  • The evolution of the system is further spurred by the massive community of Holacracy practitioners around the globe. This is an invaluable resource because there are hundreds of people that have experienced and are currently experiencing whatever it is you might be going through, and they are all eager to help and share their journey.

  • You will have a lot of options when it comes to implementation. HolacracyOne offers their own services, but there are countless Holacracy providers all around the globe, so you have plenty of choice in who will implement it within your organization, but how it is done.

  • Cons:

  • It's complicated ... Very complicated. There is a Constitution (i.e., the rule book of who has what authority and how changes are made) that is lengthy and a tough read. You have to be reassured throughout implementation that it will eventually make sense and become easier. There are tons of rules and nuances and, while the community is absolutely amazing, sometimes the community is a necessity just to figure out how to solve a problem within the guidelines.

  • While this isn't a con (as it's intentional), it's important to call out that Holacracy doesn't provide you with every process you need. It doesn't address hiring and firing, compensation, progression, and many more necessary functions of any organization. It is the responsibility of each organization to use the power granted to them by Holacracy to define and evolve their own processes that are unique to their organization. Though, even with this, there are tons of organizations in the community that would be happy to share their methods if you want to make it easier on yourself and start with something proven.

  • It IS right for you if:

  • You aren't sure exactly what the end-goal of your organizational structure looks like, but you want to get started on the road to self-organization and evolve your structure bit-by-bit as you go.

  • You want a massive and completely free benefit to aid you in every step of your implementation for years to come - the Holacracy community.

  • It is NOT right for you if:

  • You already have a pretty good idea of what type of structure you will want to go with in the end.

  • You want something simple to understand and implement.

  • You want a flat organization (Holacracy is still technically a hierarchy).

Semco: Semco is an extremely democratic version of a "traditional hierarchy", that truly makes the organization function by, for, and of the people. No matter how you might feel about politics and the power of a vote, each voice actually means something here. Ricardo Semler talks about it in a Ted Talk.

  • Pros:

  • Technically, it's still a traditional hierarchy in terms of how it's organized and the different layers of management. That makes it simple to understand.

  • Most major decisions are voted on. Even something as major as deciding on a location for an entirely new manufacturing plant, a massive investment in all aspects, is voted on.

  • Even the structure of leadership is focused on "the people" being most important. Semco proves that leaders work for the people, not the other way around. Once every six months the entire company surveys its leaders and requires a high approval rating from those they are "leading". Truly, the people elect their leaders.

  • There is plenty of self-management for each job position so that each person can do the best possible job, including radical transparency on company data that lets everyone make informed decisions.

  • Cons:

  • There are many different opinions on how good of a system democracy is. Is something that gets the most votes inherently the best decision? My initial assumption (with my limited knowledge) is that there could be issues with individuals not being able to make changes without getting buy-in or support from many others. On the other hand, that could be the most vital benefit in ensuring the wants of a few do not hold more weight than the needs of the many.

  • It IS right for you if:

  • You're a fan of an ideal democracy that really works.

  • You want an organizational structure you will recognize but where every voice matters and the people together forge the future of their work.

  • It is NOT right for you if:

  • You want to be able to make changes regardless of what anyone else wants (which isn't always a bad thing).

  • You want a flat organization.

Morning Star: Arguably the epitome of self-management, Morning Star is a completely flat organization where nobody has power over anyone else and anyone can request anything. Doug Kirkpatrick talks about it in a Tedx Talk.

  • Pros:

  • It's simple. I mean, mind-blowingly simple. It is based on the two key principles of human civilization: 1) Honor your commitments. 2) Don't use force or coercion on anyone for any reason. An internal tool lets any colleague in the organization see what the agreed-upon expectations are for anyone else, so you know who is responsible for what. Literally everything else is handled by one person requesting something from someone else, and both of them working together to find a mutually beneficial solution. Even firing people is done by asking someone to leave and coming to an agreement. That's all there is to it.

  • Cons:

  • It would be a tough environment for many individuals. If you avoid confrontation and will never approach someone face-to-face, you will never get anything done. You have to hold your peers accountable, you have to solve your own problems, and you have to facilitate changes you want to see - nobody will do it for you.

  • It IS right for you if:

  • You want the simplest option out there.

  • You like the idea of everyone being equally responsible for holding one another accountable.

  • You want something that absolutely prevents force and coercion.

  • You want a flat organization.

  • It is NOT right for you if:

  • You want any type of hierarchy.

  • You want someone to have power over anyone else in certain circumstances.

  • You don't want an environment where the only way to address any issue is to talk to someone directly.

Have questions? Want to discuss further? Curious about even more unique organizational structures out there? I'm always eager to chat and help!