Unfolding the Future Together (Guest post)

This is a post written by Tony Chamberlain, author of «The Congruence Framework». It gives a wonderful overview of what the book is about, and so I’m delighted that Tony agreed for me to publish it here. It is based on a piece Tony wrote a few weeks ago, where he contrasts the findings from my research with his own «Congruence Framework)

Unfolding the future together

How emerging organisational models are responding to a shift in global consciousness. 

‘Can we create organisations free of the pathologies that show up all too often in the workplace? Free of politics, bureaucracy, and infighting; free of stress and burnout; free of resignation, resentment and apathy; free of posturing at the top and the drudgery at the bottom? Is it possible to reinvent organisations, to devise a new model that makes work productive, fulfilling and meaningful? Can we create soulful workplaces – schools, hospitals, businesses and non-profits – where our talent can bloom and our callings can be honored?’

Frederic Laloux asks these questions in his book Reinventing Organisations. The answers, he suggests, are to be found partly in our history, which tells us that ‘with every stage of human consciousness also came a breakthrough in our ability to collaborate, bringing about a new organisational model’.

Laloux traces this development from 100,000 BC to the present, observing a gradual but accelerating evolution from simple ‘family kinships’ to ever more collaborative and powerful forms of organizations. He shows how at this moment we are at another historical juncture. The current management methods start to feel outdated, exhausted. And a new organisational model is emerging, a radical new way to structure and run organizations. He calls this the Evolutionary-Teal model (ET model). The ET model’s development can be seen as a response to an expanding global consciousness – a growing awareness that ‘the ultimate goal in life is not to be successful or loved, but to become the truest expression of ourselves . . . and to be of service to humanity and our world . . . [to see life] as a journey of personal and collective unfolding towards our true nature’.

Many writers and commentators refer to this expansion of global consciousness as the ‘rise of mindfulness’.

Laloux’s contribution is to have identified a dozen pioneering organizations that, responding to this shift in global consciousness, already operate on the new Evolutionary-Teal model. He has researched their ways of working, and shows how much these organizations depart from traditional management practices, and what a consistent new set of principles and practices they have developed instead For instance, the founders of these ET organisations all talk about trying to create workplaces that operate as ‘living organisms’ – workplaces that embrace the ‘adaptive, flexible, self-renewing, resilient, learning, intelligent-attributes found only in living systems’ (Margaret Wheatley)

Laloux’s studies also revealed ‘three breakthroughs‘ in the way that ET organisations focus on engaging their organisational community, three bold departures from management as it is told in business school today. These organizations demonstrated:

  • A commitment to an evolutionary purpose – collaborating with their people to unfold a future grounded in a shared purpose, Leaders in these companies assume they their organizations have ‘a life and sense of direction of their own';  So rather than trying to pursue a predicted future through strategies, plans and budgets, they engage the whole organisational community to ‘listening in to their organisation’s deep creative potential… and understanding…the purpose it intends to serve’.
  • An emphasis on wholeness – an invitation for the ‘whole person’ to participate in a workplace where each person’s ‘emotional, intuitive and spiritual parts’ are welcome and respected and where the adoption of ‘social masks’ becomes irrelevant and therefore unnecessary. ET organisations create workplaces that ‘support people’s longing to be fully themselves at work and yet deeply involved in nourishing relationships [that build]...wholeness and community’
  • A preference for self-management – replacing the constraints of traditional hierarchical control systems with agile self-organising systems that are enabled by [collaborative] peer relationships. Laloux observes that  ‘People who are new to the idea of self-management sometimes mistakenly assume that it simply means taking the hierarchy out of an organization and running everything democratically based on consensus. There is, of course, much more to it. Self-management, just like the traditional pyramidal model it replaces, works with an interlocking set of structures and practices’ to support new ways of sharing information, making decisions, and resolving conflicts.

There is much interest today in mindfulness practices in organizations. Even Wall Street banks are starting to offer their overworked bankers courses in mindfulness. Mindfulness is often used as a way to help people deal with pressure, stress and unhealthy corporate cultures.   It is interesting to note that the practices for ‘evolutionary purpose, wholeness and self-management’, which characterise ET organisations, weave mindfulness deeply into the fabric of the organizations. So much so that few organizations researched by Laloux spend much time talking about the concept. Mindfulness is no longer an add-on.

The same holds true for another concept many organizations aspire to embrace: the learning organization.  The evolutionary self-organising and self-managing nature of these organisations turns them into natural learning organizations. So much so that the none of these organizations spends any conscious effort to become a learning organization. This reminds us that mindfulness and learning are natural human conditions, part of our wholeness, and that organisations that evolve by listening to their communities will find these practices emerge quite naturally as part of their operating culture.

For those of us interested in how we can ‘create soulful workplaces…where our talent can bloom and our callings can be honoured’, Laloux’s case studies provide a wealth of practical examples of how we can ‘reinvent [our] organisations, to devise a new model that makes work productive, fulfilling and meaningful’. 

When you read this book you will be encouraged to find that new organisations of this sort are emerging in diverse industries and across different geographies. Some organizations that Laloux researched are businesses and others are non-profits. Some are in manufacturing, others in food processing, retail, media and IT. There are hospitals, nursing organizations and schools. Some have hundreds, others thousands or even tens of thousands of employees. With all that diversity, these organizations share a great many common structures and practices, modeling new ways of engaging with their communities to unfold their future together.

What a ride!

Un update on the last few months

“Reinventing Organizations” came out half a year ago, and I want to share with you a bit of the wonderful and unexpected journey it has been. The book got a furious reception! So much so that I have been overwhelmed and have failed almost completely in keeping the blog and the facebook page alive.Here is an update, in random order, of the many wonderful things that have been unfolding. This post is also meant as an invitation if you want to participate and contribute in one way or another.A word-of-mouth phenomenon

Soon, the book we hit the mark of 10,000 books sold. That’s a very rare mark to achieve for any book, let alone a self-published book that isn’t stocked in any book store and was launched with no PR and no marketing budget. It’s all thanks to so many of you talking enthusiastically about the book with friends and colleagues. This just fills me with joy and gratitude. I’ve received many emails from readers telling me  they resonated so deeply with the book that they bug everyone to read it :-) Some have bought 10, 20 or more books to offer them as gifts.

The book is starting to change organizations

The book is starting to transform organizations, and that really thrills me of course. I’ve been contacted by organizations ranging from 2 to… 60,000 people who are inspired to go “Teal”. In the mix are the most wonderful organizations, from established businesses to tech startups, from art venues to retreat centers, from men’s groups to hospitals… More people seem to be ready to embrace this change at the top of organizations than I thought a few months ago


If you, too, have started implementing some of this in your organization (or helped to do it as a coach or consultant), would you be willing to write something about it?

I plan to create a section on the book’s website for such testimonials, that I feel could stimulate others and give them the courage to follow their heart and build more soulful organizations.

VideoI’ve been invited to give many talks. One was filmed and beautifully edited and is now online:
Perhaps you have friends or colleagues who you’d like to share the ideas of the book with, but who might not want to read a book about it. The video can be a great way for them to hear about the main ideas of this work.Readers taking it into their own handsWhat I totally love is that quite a few readers have started to give talks about the book too! If you feel like giving a talk yourself, you can find here some of the slides they put together (as well as the ones I used in the video above). We can create a bit of an open-source community here where we exchange and build upon each other’s presentation materials.

And it’s not just talks.

  • Many consultants and coaches use insights from the book it in their consulting offer.
  • University professors have integrated this material into their courses (most notably Robert Kegan who made some chapters assigned reading at the Harvard School of Education).
  • One person has created an online seminar about the book
  • Other readers have created book clubs to get more deeply into the book.


The book will be published in Danish, German and French in the Spring of 2015, and probably in Dutch too. Thank you to the many readers who have spontaneously reached out to editors to make this happen! (and who are currently scheming for translation into Mandarin, Polish, Hungarian, Italian, Brazilian, Spanish…)

A few wonderful projects on their way

A few wonderful projects are on their way to build on the book’s content. Several of these projects have been initiated by readers, rather than me, which is just great.

  • A wiki to expand on the research.
  • A 3-day immersive simulation for students of business schools.
  • An illustrated, introductory version of the book.
  • An online seminar for organizational leaders and consultants.
  • A learning gathering for Teal organizations

These projects are pretty exciting, but I’ll hold back and wait until we are further along to share more. (Do subscribe to updates if you want to be informed)

And in all this, there’s been much learning for me

On a personal note, the last few months have been quite a journey. I’ve been humbled and overjoyed to witness how much the book resonates with readers. For me, the research that lead to the book helped me shift my inner dialogue from what is broken with management today to what is possible. It seems the book has helped many readers make the same hopeful shift.

I also learnt that I was right in follow my heart in the way I published and marketed this work. Early on I decided I would self-publish the book, rather than seek the endorsement of a big name in the publishing industry. I also read quite a lot of material on how you should market books, and quickly decided these marketing practices didn’t feel right. I thought about doing the whole Twitter and Facebook thing, and found this wasn’t for me. So I basically decided I would just listen to what feels right, and that brought me to take a contrarian approach to  pretty much all the accepted practices in publishing and marketing a book. That the book is turning into somewhat of a phenomenon despite all this can only be explained as either a mystery, or the vindication that we should follow our hearts in whatever we do.

There has also been a more painful learning. I’m learning to say “no”, something I know I needed to learn for a long time J. The number of emails I now receive, and the number of invitations to connect or to give talks simply exceeds what I can offer, and there no longer is a way for me to say “yes” when I shouldn’t. Boy, I’ll be happy when I’ll have mastered that skill, and more generally when I’ll have learned to maintain and appreciate a very simply life in the midst of what now feels like overwhelm.

In the last few months, I’ve become really interested by the concept and the practice of the gift economy. You may know that the book is available in “Pay-What-Feels-Right” mode. With some clients that asked me to help them in their organization’s journey to Teal, I’m also now working based on this principle. I’ve written a blog post about the topic, and I know I’m just at the beginning here. The more I reflect about the gift economy, the more I feel this is how I want to work in the future.

An open invitation

If you want to incorporate the ideas of the book in some of your work or some form of project, go for it! Give talks about it, create a webinar, include it in your consulting work. I think we need more soulful businesses, nonprofits, schools and hospitals, so whatever you do, I’ll be really grateful.

I don’t want to mess with trademarking concepts from the book and then licensing this work. Of course I put energy and some skills (I hope) in formalizing these ideas, but they really are not mine. They come from the extraordinary organizations I researched. And I would claim that they come from a deeper source, that is releasing these ideas into our consciousness at this moment in time.

This being said, if you make explicit reference to the book or to me in the marketing of your offer, and make sure it doesn’t sound like I would vouch for your offer. I want to avoid any confusion with clients who might assume otherwise when the see the reference to the book.

And if the content of the book helps you earn revenues, you can ask yourself, in line with the principles of the gift economy, if you feel it would be right to gift something back to me. There is no obligation to give anything. Just listen to you heart, and see if it wants to give something back.

I’m grateful and curious

I’m very grateful for all that is unfolding, and curious what comes next. Feel free to share with me how the book or this blog post is resonating with you. I will read what you send me, and thank you in my heart for it. If I do no answer, don’t be mad, I’m learning to manage overwhelm ;-)

Living into the gift economy

A personal post

Researching and writing «Reinventing Organizations» has felt like work of the soul to me, something much in my life has prepared me to do. In many ways, the process has been wonderfully easy. We often hear from people saying how writing a book or getting it published has been a painful process. I was blessed that everything just seemed to flow (even though it was of course a lot of work), an indication perhaps that this was work I was meant to do.

And yet, there have been much personal learning for me in the process. For instance, I’ve learnt (well I’m still learning) to say «no» to many of the demands I get for connecting with readers, giving talks and doing consulting, simply because the numbers of request exceed what I can offer. Saying «no» has always been difficult for me, and now life has brought me to a place where I simply have to learn to do it, and learn to do it as gracefully as I can.

One type of learning I wasn’t expecting was that I’d become fascinated and learn to work in the gift economy. Hey I didn’t even really know about the concept (I got a crash course reading Charles Eisenstein’s book Sacred Economics). The idea, to oversimplify, is to live from abundance, from a place where you give your time, your skills, your passion, and others give back (in money or otherwise) whatever feels right to them. No more contracting, no more fixed prices. Instead, much more love for the work and deeper connection between people.

The book as a first experiment

I started experimenting with the book. You can purchase the kindle/iBook/pdf version of the book  at $9.95 from any major retailer of from this website. Or you can download it in pay-what-feels-right mode (my term, I prefer it to «pay what you want», which to me has got somewhat of an ego-appealing «I-can-do-whatever-I-want» kind of ring to it). You download the book for free, and make the moral commitment to gift back, a month later or whenever you are done reading, whatever amount (or other gift) feels right to you.

The experiment has worked wonderfully for me. I’m of course very happy when people buy the book in paper version or the e-version at a fixed price. It means the ideas get spread, and I get a few dollars of income. But I just love the pay-what-feels-right. Any donation triggers an email into my inbox, and stirs my curiosity: what has this book been worth to this person? Has she left a personal note?

I’ve had someone in Kenya donating $2, and telling me that was a big donation for him. And I’ve had readers give me $100 and $200 because that’s what the book was worth to them. (Here is a nice blog post of someone talking about his perspective as a reader and why he ended up giving more than the list price).

Of course, the usual fears popped up at first: will people not just take advantage of the system? Why will anyone buy the book if they can just download it and never pay for it? But somehow these fears faded as quickly as they came up. Some people do indeed download the book and never donate. And you know what? I feel that’s ok too. I guess that just comes with the territory. Overall, I feel I’ve received as much if not more than what I’ve given. Somehow people respond to this experiment in wonderful ways, it creates a goodwill I didn’t anticipate. I get back so much from readers in all sorts of ways that I can’t even begin to say how blessed I feel. And, if I’m honest with myself, I’m somehow proud of myself that I did go for this experiment. And I guess that feeling good about myself, even if it’s the good old ego flattering itself a bit, isn’t such a bad thing, is it?

Consulting in the gift

And so I’ve started working at times in the gift in my other work too. As the book is getting a lot of traction, leaders of many different organizations ask me to be a sparring partner in their journey to transform their organization. This is wonderful work to be involved in! With some of them, that are open to the idea, I now work in the gift. At the end of every quarter I tell them how much time we’ve spent together, and they donate whatever feels right to them.

Most people actually prefer working with a fixed price. I guess it is because the fixed price takes away the possibly awkward discussion about how much you give. And I can fully understand that. Let’s put ourselves in their shoes for a minute: If I give less than Frederic was expecting, will he be hurt, or think I’m stingy? And if I give more, am I giving too much? But it’s precisely in that question that lies the genius of the gift economy, because it pushes us to reflect on what value we have exchanged, on our relationship with money, and our relationship to one another.

Inviting everyone to take ownership of this work in the spirit of gift

The spirit of working in the gift has also found its way in my relationship with consultants and trainers who are incorporating the insights from the book into their work. Within a few days of the book being published, people asked me if they could take this material and build consulting offers or training offers around it. My response, off the cuff, was «of course, just go for it!»

I didn’t want to mess with trademarking concepts from the book and then licensing this work. Hey, of course I put energy and some skills (I hope) in formalizing these ideas, but they really are not mine. They come from the extraordinary organizations I researched. And I would even claim that they come from a deeper source, that is releasing these ideas into our consciousness at this moment in time.

Since then, though, I’ve come to give a slightly different answer. I still don’t want to trademark and license. I don’t want to control if and how people use these ideas. I think we need more soulful businesses, nonprofits, schools and hospitals, so I want these ideas to spread as much as possible, and I’m really happy that so many people want to play a part in this. But rather then just say «do whatever you want», I found that the principles of the gift economy make sense to me here too.

And so now, when people ask me if they can use this work in their consulting or in trainings or seminars they develop, I tell them «sure, go ahead». And I add two things:

  • If you make explicit reference to the book or to me in the marketing of your offer, make sure it’s clear that I’m not involved, and make sure it doesn’t sound like I would vouch for your offer. I want to avoid any confusion with clients who might assume otherwise when the see the reference to my work.
  • And I ask you to ask yourself, at the end of the day, if you feel it would be right to gift something back to me. There is no obligation to give anything. Don’t reason in terms of percentages or any other mathematical formula. Just listen to you heart, and see if it wants to give something back. The goal is that you feel everything is right, that the energetic exchange feels completed, that your heart is smiling.

Just the beginning

I’m sure this is just the beginning of the journey for me. I sense that our economic system will shift, slowly at first, and then more and more toward the gift economy. I wrote this blog post because I’m eager to open a conversation around this topic. What thoughts do my early experiments trigger with you? Have you practiced working in the gift economy? If you do, how is it going for you? Have you been on the other side, giving back to someone for his gift? How did that feel for you?

If you want to dive deeper into the subject, read Charles Eisenstein’s book, or join this Facebook group on the topic of the gift economy. 

The book is out !

This is a blog post I’ve wanted to write for a long time!

The book “Reinventing Organizations”, which I’ve spent much time on over the last 3 years, is… out! It can be purchased on Amazon.comAmazon.fr, or downloaded from the book’s website (in pdf/kindle/iBook format).

The book in at nutshell

Based on extensive research of pioneering organizations, the book tells the story of the emergence of a new management paradigm, a whole new way to structure and operate organizations. It makes for radically more soulful, purposeful and productive workplaces.

  • Part 1 of the book shows how in the past, at every turning point in history, we have transitioned to a more powerful management paradigm, and argues that we are ready for the next shift.
  • Part 2 describes in great detail how these organizations operate, based on a dozen case examples.
  • Part 3 discusses the necessary conditions and practical ways for new or existing organizations to adopt this new way of operating.

My hope is that the book contributes to the emergence of truly soulful organizations. The book uses cases examples from a wide range of industries (and geographies), and so I hope that it might inspire leaders not only of businesses, but also of nonprofits, schools or hospitals who are frustrated/disillusioned with the current way we run these places… but wonder if there is a better way.

In all these areas, we could really do with more inspiring and purposeful organizations!

Two experiments in abundance

I’m quite excited about an experiment that I dubbed “Pay-What-Feels-Right”. From the book’s website, readers can download the book at a fixed price of $9.95. Or they can download it freely, and receive an automatic email a month later inviting them to gift back whatever value they feel they have received from the book. It’s an experiment in abundance, and I’m curious how it will play out.

Also, in the same spirit of abundance, I’ve decided to share the book for free with networks that work towards a better world. For instance, all 2,000 social entrepreneurs of Ashoka’s network will receive the book and hopefully many will be inspired to infuse their efforts with the book’s ideas!

(If you know of a network that would want to participate, feel free to let them know they can contact me if interested.)

A wonderful launch so far

The book has been out for a few days now, and it’s doing fantastically well! Some very big names in the field have endorsed the book, and one of them, Ken Wilber (who wrote the foreword) sent out an email to his massive number of followers, which really helped to launch the book.

In the last few days, I’ve received wonderful emails from readers. And I’ve already been contacted for translation into German and Danish. This is all starting on a much bigger note than I anticipated, and I couldn’t be more happy :-)

If you want to help

It would be wonderful if you could help to spread the word! You can

  • forward this message to people you feel would be interested in the topic
  • talk about it on Facebook/Twitter/Linked-in…

If you read the book, you can also share passages you particularly like on relevant Linked-In groups, Facebook groups etc. It’s a great way for other people to get a taste for the book’s content.

If you have any other ideas to help the ideas in the book to spread, don’t be shy, I’d love to hear them :-)



★ ★ ★ ★ ★

“A spectacular treatise! Truly pioneering work.”
—Ken Wilber, from the Foreword

“Richly researched—a stimulating and inspiring read!”
— Robert Kegan, Harvard University’s Meehan Professor of Adult Learning

«Everything you need to know about building a new paradigm organization!»
— Richard Barrett, Chairman and founder of the Barrett Values Centre

“Impressive! Brilliant! This book is a world-changer”
—Jenny Wade, Ph.D., Author of Changes of Mind

“Sweeping and brilliant in scope. Exhilarating and deeply hopeful.”
—Norman Wolfe, Author of The Living Organization

Say “no more hierarchy” and everybody gets the wrong idea

Zappos.com generated quite a lot of buzz recently when it announced that it would be throwing out the good old hierarchical management approach we all know to adopt something called “Holacracy.” If you haven’t heard about this change, here is why it’s so significant.

Zappos.com, the internet shoe and clothing retailer, became a poster child of “values-driven” or “culture-driven” organizations when Tony Hsieh, its CEO, wrote a bestseller that recounted how a struggling, two-person start-up turned into an industry leader that was acquired for $1.2 billion by Amazon. Prior to Zappos, Hsieh had already made a fortune during the dot-com bubble. In his book, Hsieh confesses to cashing in on his first start-up, LinkExchange, because he didn’t enjoy working there anymore. The bustling culture from the early days had somehow evaporated. Hsieh was determined not to make the mistake again, and at Zappos, he pulled out all the stops to create an extraordinarily vibrant corporate culture.

From great to insane?

Everyone can claim to have a great culture. Zappos found an unusual way to test theirs. Every new hire in the company goes through a four-week onboarding program (a good part of it is spent as a call center employee working with Zappos’ customers). While in the program, new hires can quit at any time if they find they don’t like the place that much after all—and Zappos will pay them $3,000 to leave. That’s right: pay a new hire to leave! The idea is that the company only wants people working there that are really eager to work there. Originally, the company offered $100 to leave. Nobody took the check, so they upped the amount. Two hundred. Five hundred. One thousand dollars! Whenever the percentage of people walking out drops below one percent or so, Zappos increases the amount. Mind you, most people at Zappos staff the call centers and the warehouses, so $3,000 is a big deal. This practice is akin to a real life barometer of Zappos’ culture, and the sum of $3,000 shows just how much people love to work there.

By any account, then, Zappos is not just doing good, it’s doing great. So it’s rather extraordinary to see it take the radical step of fundamentally reinventing its management model. People don’t usually change what isn’t broken. But Tony Hsieh had tasted “Holacracy” in one of his other ventures (he is putting a lot of money and effort into revitalizing downtown Las Vegas). He was so impressed that a few months later, he announced to employees in an all-hands meeting that Zappos would adopt holacratic structures and practices.

Busting the monopoly of the pyramid

What is Holacracy? Brian Robertson, who developed Holacracy, calls it an “organizational operating system,” to use a computer analogy. Operating systems rule the fundamental aspects of a computer: how different parts of the hardware interact, how information flows, what piece of information is more important than another, and so forth. The operating system doesn’t decide what programs run on it; it’s just the ground layer. Although one rarely thinks about the operating system, a bad one (Vista, anyone?) makes everything buggy and slow.

Today’s organizations have an operating system built around a hierarchical pyramid, with which most people are increasingly disillusioned. It is buggy and slow, but we don’t really have an alternative. It’s like Windows in the old days: don’t want Windows? Well, too bad, there isn’t really anything else on offer!

Holacracy is one of a number of new “operating systems” that are currently emerging (I’ve researched several of them for an upcoming book, Reinventing Organizations). Holacracy doesn’t work with a pyramid and business units, but with “circles.” There are no more managers and no more job titles. Instead, people fill “roles,” and the tasks formerly done by managers are filled by a number of different people. Power is distributed throughout the organization in such a way that you don’t have a superior who can invalidate your decision. And most importantly, the system constantly self-adjusts. Whenever someone feels that some responsibilities need to be created or shifted, a very efficient process exists to do so. It all relies on collective intelligence mechanisms—no one can overrule others simply because he shouts louder or she plays politics better.

Does this all sound confusing? I’m sure it does! This is new terrain. I had to dive really deeply into this concept to get my head around it. There is no way around it; it takes time to understand Holacracy. The easiest way to grasp its power is to actually experience it. Participating in one meeting run along holacratic rules is enough for most people to come out impressed by how efficiently it gets rid of stuff like politics, endless discussions, analysis paralysis, and so on.

It’s so easy to get it wrong

In the last few days, there have been a number of articles popping up in the popular press about Zappos and Holacracy, including in respectable publications such as Forbes and Inc. magazines. The topic, of course, makes for a great story—the poster-child of the culture-driven, empowering organization throws out hierarchy and job titles! But in my opinion, these articles have been somewhat disappointing. Journalists, like us all, are vulnerable to stories that are framed simplistically.

Say “no more hierarchy” and everyone gets the wrong idea. We’ve grown up believing that there are only two choices. You can have hierarchy. Or, you can have a playground, a free-for-all, where everybody just does what they want.

The articles about Zappos and Holacracy tended to go along these lines: Kudos for trying to get rid of the pyramid. We root for you. But seriously, this experiment has no chance of flying, right?

A third way beyond hierarchy or free-for-all

The problem is that the equation “no hierarchy = flatland” can be, but is not necessarily, true. Holacracy and some other pioneering organizations have developed a third way. They have taken out the hierarchy of people and power (“I’m your boss so I can tell you what to do”) but kept hierarchies of purpose, complexity, and scope (one employee’s scope might be to think about the functioning of a whole factory, while an another’s scope might be focusing on one machine only).

The pyramid as a form of coherence is out, but it is replaced with other systems and practices. In most cases, the role of the boss is replaced by clever peer-based practices that allow a group of colleagues to make decisions on topics like investments, recruitment, appointments, evaluations, and compensation. Practice shows that with the right mechanisms, peers can hold each other to account very well, thank you, probably better than a boss ever could. In a team, when someone is not pulling his or her weight, will colleagues speak up? A few simple practices can help this to happen in a timely and productive manner in a group of peers. Contrast this with a hierarchical system: in most cases, colleagues are resentful of a lazy co-worker but don’t speak up and wait for the boss to figure there is a problem and do something about it.

Decision-making beyond top-down or consensus

Here is another common misperception. For some reason, many people naturally assume that “no hierarchy = consensus decision-making.” In principle, consensus sounds appealing: give everyone an equal voice. In practice, it often degenerates into a collective tyranny of the ego. Anybody has the power to block the group if his whims and wishes are not incorporated. Now it’s not only the boss, but everybody, who has power over others (albeit only the power to paralyze). Attempting to accommodate everyone’s wishes, however trivial, often turns into an agonizing pursuit. In the end, it’s not rare that most people stop caring and start pleading for someone to please make a decision, whatever it turns out to be.

Consensus comes with another flaw: It dilutes responsibility. In many cases, nobody feels responsible for the final decision. The original proposer is often frustrated that the group watered down her idea beyond recognition; she might well be the last one to champion the decision made by the group. For that reason, many decisions never get implemented or are done so only half-heartedly. If things don’t work out as planned, it’s unclear who is responsible for stepping in.

There are good reasons, then, to be suspicious of consensus. The thing is, Holacracy and a number of other organizations that have gotten rid of power hierarchies don’t work with consensus. They have found a powerful alternative—a decision-making mechanism that transcends both hierarchy and consensus. These decision-making mechanisms give everyone affected by a decision a voice (the appropriate voice, not an equal voice), but not the power to block progress.

Integrated decision-making

Holacracy calls this mechanism “integrated decision-making” and uses it during “governance meetings,” which are meetings where people don’t talk about business issues, but only about roles and responsibilities. Anybody who feels that a role needs to be created, amended, or discarded (called the proposer) can add it to the agenda. Each such governance item is discussed in turn and brought to resolution. Governance meetings follow a strict process to ensure that everybody’s voice is heard and that no one can dominate decision-making. A facilitator guides the proceedings. Here are the main steps of the process:

1. Present proposal: The proposer states his proposal and the issue this proposal is attempting to resolve.

2. Clarifying questions: Anybody can ask clarifying questions to seek information or understanding. This point is not yet the moment for reactions, and the facilitator will interrupt any question that is cloaking a reaction to the proposal.

3. Reaction round: Each person is given space to react to the proposal. Discussions and responses are not allowed at this stage.

4. Amend and clarify: The proposer can clarify the intent of his proposal further or amend it based on the prior discussion.

5. Objection round: The facilitator asks, “Do you see any reasons why adopting this proposal would cause harm or move us backwards?” There are strict criteria for an objection to be valid, to avoid the problem that plagues consensus: that one person can block the group for no good reason.

6. Integration: If an objection is raised, the facilitator leads an open discussion to craft an amended proposal that would avoid the objection while still addressing the proposer’s concern. If several objections are raised, they are addressed in this way one at a time, until all are removed.

This process helps teams to react and adapt on an ongoing basis to the problems and opportunities that people sense. Every month a team will typically adapt, clarify, create, or discard one or several roles. The process might sound formal, but people love it because it is so ruthlessly efficient. It cuts through the sometimes endless, uncomfortable discussions we have when we deal with the sensitive topic of roles and responsibilities. There is no more need for water-cooler talk, for politics, or for coalition-building to obtain a change in roles. If I sense some roles and responsibilities need changing, I have a place where I know I can bring up this topic and have it reliably processed without drama and politics.

Scaling organizations without power hierarchy

I’m sure this example raises as many questions as it answers. We are not used to thinking beyond the polarities of hierarchy/playground and top-down decision-making/consensus. This is new terrain for our minds.

What I find extraordinary, though, is that the times seem ripe for many of us who want to explore this new terrain. You see, it’s not just Holacracy. A number of organizations have cracked a way to transcend these polarities, and they have proven in practice that it works, even at very large scales. With 1,500 employees, Zappos is by far the biggest organization implementing Holacracy. But in my research for Reinventing Organizations, I stumbled upon other organizations who have been operating for years without power hierarchy with several thousand people and been spectacularly successful with it.

The young get it instinctively

We have grown up with hierarchies everywhere and find this hard to believe. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that many young people, who have grown up with the Web (the Millennials or Generation Y), “get” self-management instinctively. Gary Hamel, in his book What Matters Now, notes that on the web:

·       No one can kill a good idea
·       Everyone can pitch in
·       Anyone can lead
·       No one can dictate
·       You get to choose your cause
·       You can easily build on top of what others have done
·       You don’t have to put up with bullies and tyrants
·       Agitators don’t get marginalized
·       Excellence usually wins (and mediocrity doesn’t)
·       Passion-killing policies get reversed
·       Great contributions get recognized and celebrated

Many organizational leaders and human resource managers complain that Millennials are hard to manage. Indeed, this generation has grown up in the disruptive world of the Internet, where people’s influence is based on contribution and reputation, not position. Why would they want to put up with anything other than self-management in the workplace?

Why would anyone else, for that matter? It seems that an ever growing number of us have come to see the limits of our current way to run organizations and are ready for something more. Holacracy and other organizations show how we can do it.

But first, we have to be willing to spend the time it takes to really get how they operate, which isn’t simply to strip hierarchy and management out of organizations or to run everything by consensus. These systems have their own coherent set of structures, practices, and processes. There is no shortcut. We have to spend time with their methods to really understand the magic.

If you are interested in deepening your understanding of the topic, you can read Reinventing Organizations: A Guide to Creating Organizations Inspired by the Next Stage of Human Consciousness.  If you would like to be updated about new posts, click here. You can also follow me on Facebook.

If you are interested specifically in Holacracy, the best place to start, in my opinion, is to participate in a free online webinar at Holacracy.org, where you can experience, among other things, a meeting run along holacratic principles.