An Alternative To Holacracy: Unlocking Ideas For The Best Results

Holacractic organizations hinge on getting universal input and coming to consensus. But it doesn't have to be black-and-white when the answers come flooding in. Here's how to work with the employee feedback resources waiting to be used.

The jury is still out on whether the "no managers, self-governing" management trend called holacracy is here to stay.

Recent news that online retailer Zappos is shifting to a holacratic model drew a fair bit of attention, at least among the chattering class. The notion that an organization can run better by flattening management and ditching job titles is a welcome idea to some and a radical notion to many others.

Two important pivots are at the core of a holacratic organization, according to leadership experts: 1. Getting everyone’s input and 2. Consensual decision making across the organization.

But lost in all the initial thumbs-up or thumbs-down reaction to Zappos’s move is a core challenge for most companies, regardless of organizational structure and size: how to unlock and unblock the best ideas, insights, and intelligence from within to drive innovation and significantly impact business results.

Whether you lean towards holacracy or not, knowledge and insights from inside your organization are worth their weight in gold when it comes to driving great results.

But here’s the not-so-secret secret at most organizations: Knowledge is locked away in the minds of employees, customers, and unwieldy data systems. What’s more, it’s difficult and often impossible for many leaders to gather the truth from employees. Barriers exist and people are siloed; and true sentiments from the rank and file rarely bubble to the top.

But one thing you can count on is that lots of answers to what you’re puzzling through exist with your organization. Though the shop floor is now populated by cubicles, one truth need not be lost on leaders: Your people know a lot more than you realize and vital insights are trapped in some netherworld between you and them. Your ability to access this intelligence is critical.

Time for another employee survey? Perhaps not.

Here’s how to tap the wisdom of your people without having to reinvent your entire organization for incredible results:

1. Free the Truth

Jack Nicholson’s famous line from A Few Good Men, "you can’t handle the truth," probably doesn’t apply in your business. You can handle it, sure, but can you access it? Can you easily tap into the true sentiment of your organization for unvarnished insights from front-line employees—the kind of insights that help inform strategic business decisions?

Most organizations depend on their layers of middle management to source this information and translate it up into the strategic conversations. Better to go right to the source and offer an experience of anonymity where the merit of the idea and input is put ahead of the level and stature of the person. In addition to getting great intelligence, you will also find your people will love you for having the opportunity to be authentically heard!

2. Get Out of The Way

Here’s a scenario familiar to most of us: The boss voices his opinion during a meeting or on an enterprise social platform and ends up bending the trajectory of this discussion towards his way of thinking. The result? Groupthink, which stifles ideas, new thinking, innovative insights, and risk-taking among employees.

Take a lesson from the venerable honeybees, which are masters of minimizing rank to capture the wisdom of a group for important decisions. Bees have used what’s called the waggle dance for millions of years to debate options within the hive and crowdsource decisions for stronger outcomes. Their process isn’t hung up on rank and status—the debate matters and the merit of the ideas takes precedence.

You’ll win big time when you invite people into a focused conversation while creating the conditions for an efficient, respectful, transparent, and vigorous debate. While the debate is happening, take the friction out by minimizing organizational politics, and don’t have leaders moderating the process or biasing the outcome. Once an agreement is reached and new action is taken, you’ll earn the full respect and engagement from the group.

3. Make it Transparent

A great way to compress time is to make things more transparent so everyone immediately benefits from the most current and relevant information on hand today. Organizations certainly aspire to model this value of transparency; however, they find their aspirations are impeded. Most of their current processes create asymmetric relationships where one party is privy to more information than another, leading to a lag and layers of bias in how the information is interpreted.

The next time you ask your employees for their opinion or input, try making the interaction symmetric and transparent—where the people contributing the knowledge have the benefit to see and learn how others are contributing in real time. This levels the playing field and sets-up symmetric relationships among the employees and the organization leading to tighter alignment, more engagement, and ultimately compressing the time to act on this valuable intelligence.

To juxtapose this approach against the typical talent management practices, think about the last time you participated in a company-wide survey and how long it took for the headlines to be shared back, if that even happened. The layers and bias applied to interpreting this data further makes this process inefficient and slow, while running the dangerous risk of watering down the core message.

4. Keep it Focused

The late situational leadership guru, Paul Hersey, adapted the old acronym KISS—Keep It Simple Stupid—to a version that resonates now more than ever: Keep It Simple And Specific.

With today’s flood of information and everything that competes for your employees’ attention, few have the time or motivation to answer 30 question surveys. Moreover, few managers have the time to make sense of and act on the findings.

Bottom line for tapping into the wisdom of a group is to focus and prioritize. It turns out honeybees don’t debate multiple and varied topics at the same time. Whatever goes before the group, such as where to move the hive, for instance, is mulled and debated with intensity before anything else is floated to the group.

In The Wisdom of Crowds, author James Surowiecki notes that a large group of diverse individuals will come up with better, more robust forecasts—and make more intelligent decisions—than even the most skilled decision makers. The challenge is to know how best to tap groups to mine the gold buried in them thar hills.

Michael Papay is the co-founder and CEO of waggl, a new breed of communication tool designed to crowdsource the collective intelligence that exists within organizations. Papay is an entrepreneur and innovator with more than 15 years of Software as a Service (SaaS) experience, particularly in the Human Capital Management field.

[Image: Flickr user Andrew King]

Add New Comment

3 Comments

  • Hi Michael,

    No argument with the value of focus, transparency, social safety, and authenticity. One quibble on your use of the word holacratic though -- Holacracy is a brand; it is a form of sociocratic system. All the key elements of that brand -- decision-making by resolving "tensions", organizing work by roles & circles, an organizational structure built to guarantee dynamic steering -- come from Sociocracy. Sociocracy is a decades-old management and governance discipline used by hundreds of businesses and nonprofits; you can start learning about that on wikipedia. The general term for such systems is "sociocratic", not "holacratic". For more on the origin of Holacracy visit http://www.strategy-business.com/article/06314 .

    Lastly, neither Holacracy nor any other form of Sociocracy requires people to reach a consensus in order to make a decision. I'd be happy to explain the decision-making processes in more detail if you shoot me an email.

  • Hi Nathaniel,

    Thank you so much for your comment and the insights you shared about the origins of Holacracy as a brand and an extension of the sociocratic system. I believe what you're highlighting is partially what I addressed at the beginning of the article, which is to say whether you're for or against Holacracy, understand it or not, there are simple things people can immediately embrace to spark more engagement and results within their organizations -- ideally of course, supported by our new crowdsourcing communications tool -- waggl. I do look forward to connecting with you and will plan to reach out directly as I find this to be an important domain, and one where technology tools/platforms that are oriented around these core beliefs can help accelerate a dramatic and important shift within even the largest of organizations. Additionally, I would love to tap into your expertise further as we look to create the ideal organization here at waggl. All the best!

    Michael Papay