• Paul Walker

One Size Does Not Fit All

Updated: May 26



Over the years, I have had countless conversations with people interested in implementing self-organization in their own companies. All those I talk to almost always share one commonality: They don’t realize how many different methods of successful self-organization are out there already, nor that a new, unique method could easily be created. It is not uncommon for me to hear specific requests such as:

  • “I want to implement X structure, but I want to drastically change some of its fundamental processes.”

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

  • “I need more/less structure for certain processes in my organization.”

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


If you have ever found yourself saying one of these things, you should know that what you want probably already exists at other companies. Whether it does or not, there are easy ways to organize your company in a way unique to your needs and wants. While the majority of my personal experience is with Holacracy, I’ve had an interest in learning about as many other methods of self-organization as I can find.

Truth be told, there are way too many options out there with a plethora of differences and similarities between them all, which can get overwhelming if you don’t know where to start. Thus, I wanted to help simplify that for anyone who might be considering self-management for their organization. Below is my personal attempt at describing just three of the many methods out there. Hopefully, you can use this list to see which would benefit you most or which pieces you can take from in order 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 (i.e., Morning Star and Semco). If any of this is inaccurate, please do let me know so I can promptly update this list.


Holacracy:

Created by HolacracyOne, Holacracy is marketed as a framework intended to distribute decision-making power to everyone. Brian Robertson talks about it in a TedX Talk.

Pros:

  • Holacracy is intentionally built vaguely enough that it can work equally well for a company of any size, culture, or industry. 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. While Holacracy is a newcomer in the self-management game, I believe they have created the biggest and most well-known platform, which means the most extensive community.

  • You will have a lot of options when it comes to implementation. HolacracyOne offers its own services, but there are countless Holacracy providers all around the globe. This gives you plenty of choice in who can implement it within your organization and, to a degree, 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 a 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.

  • Although it’s intentional, Holacracy doesn’t provide you with every process you need. This is why I consider it a con. 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. Thankfully, 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. However, you shouldn’t have to rely on others to help you figure out how to make a process work for you.

  • Holacracy’s biggest benefit is also its biggest downfall: the flexibility of the system. You can use Holacracy to structure your organization in any way you want. So, while this means you can create a worker’s paradise that is 100% self-managed, it also means you can restructure your traditional company into even more of an autocratic dictatorship — all while perfectly following the rules of Holacracy. This part isn’t just theory; I’ve seen it happen more times than I care to count.


It IS right for you if:

  • You don’t have an end-goal for how you want your organization structured, but you want to get started evolving your structure bit-by-bit at your own pace.

  • 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 want to end up with.

  • You want something simple to understand and implement.

  • You want a flat organization (Holacracy-powered organizations are still very much hierarchal unless they deliberately restructure things otherwise).


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 being said, there are only two levels of hierarchy. That makes it simple for anyone to understand how things are structured.

  • 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.

  • 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? I am sure it’s possible 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. I personally don’t feel this is a con, but no system is perfect, so this might be something for you to consider.


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 work together to 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.


Do you have a preferred form of self-management? Do you disagree with my perspectives on these three approaches? We'd love to hear your thoughts!

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