By: Chuck Frey
The fifth interview in the creativity in business thought leader aeries is with Brian Robertson, a pioneer of holacracy, a new organizational operating system noted for dramatically increasing agility, transparency, innovation and accountability.
Robertson’s initial development of holacracy took place at an award-winning software company he founded in 2001 and led as CEO through 2007, which served as a test bed for new methods of organizing and working together. The resulting system was named holacracy and made its debut in 2006 in a prominent article in the Wall Street Journal.
Holacracy continues to evolve under the stewardship of HolacracyOne, co-founded by Robertson, to further develop the method and bring it to the world. It’s now being applied by organizations and organizational consultants all over the world.
Q: How does holacracy relate to creativity and innovation?
Robertson: It is a comprehensive practice for governing and running our organizations. With its transformative structure and processes, holacracy integrates the collective wisdom of people throughout the company, while aligning the organization with its broader purpose and a more organic way of operating. The result is dramatically increased agility, transparency, accountability, and innovation – creativity in action.
Holacracy takes leading-edge ideas and principles about harnessing creativity and instills them in the actual structures and processes of the organization. It grounds them in practice and brings them to life.
Q: What do you see as the new paradigm of work?
Robertson: Over the past two decades, dozens of thought leaders have pointed the way to new capacities that organizations must develop to thrive amidst our 21st century challenges. Peter Senge highlights the need for systems thinking and learning organizations. Gary Hamel describes radically new management methods. Meg Wheatley calls for self-organization and a living systems mindset. And Jim Collins shows the impact of leaders who get their ego out of the way. These visionaries and many more have been highlighting the limits of our conventional views of organization and leadership, and offering a glimpse of new possibilities available to us – if we’re able to make the leap.
The approach holacracy takes to realizing this shift is comprehensive and transformative, yet equally honors conventional fundamentals. It is not enough to simply throw out current methods, however obsolete – we must replace them with new methods which still achieve the value of the conventional, plus much more.
Static predict-and-control management methods must give way to a more dynamic and adaptable approach. This requires shifting rigid top-down power hierarchies into a more responsive organic structure, and then using that new structure to distribute governance and capture learning throughout the entire organization. That means surfacing a great deal of feedback, so slow meetings and painful decision-making must be replaced with an approach that rapidly integrates key perspectives from multiple people.
The organization’s operational processes can then take advantage of this newfound agility to harness innovation and deliver superior results. To avoid all of this falling apart in a clash of egos, the organization will need a compelling purpose that invites everyone to serve something larger than themselves, and a purpose-driven board to anchor it. Sustaining this over time will require new language and meaning-making in the culture, to help uproot deeply-entrenched mental models that are limiting in light of the emerging reality such a system offers.
Q: Where do you see creativity in this emerging paradigm?
Robertson: The new paradigm more naturally allows creativity to happen, and allows an organization to be a better instrument for its emergence. Creativity is at the heart of reality, it is a fundamental drive of the universe we live in – where once there were only atoms, molecules emerges; where once only reptiles, some sprouted wings and learned to fly. We live in a naturally evolving, creative universe, one which constantly seeks to express newness, to manifest deeper and higher levels of order and embrace.
The new work paradigm doesn’t use creativity; it is a deeper expression of creativity in action, and one which itself helps to further express the same fundamental creative impulse that started this 14 billion year journey of ours.
Q: What attitudes and behaviors do you see as essential for effectively navigating this paradigm?
Robertson: Most modern leadership and management techniques are based on a predict-and-control paradigm. This mindset asks those in leadership roles to anticipate and design the best path to achieve pre-defined goals in advance, and then control for any deviations to the prescribed plan. This approach matured through the first half of the twentieth century and worked well enough in the relatively simple and static environments faced by organizations of that era.
Today, our predict-and-control techniques are struggling to keep up with the agility and innovation required in a landscape of rapid change and dynamic complexity. They’re also failing to ignite the passion and creativity of a new generation of workers demanding greater meaning and purpose in their work.
In today’s environment, steering an organization with predict-and-control methods is akin to riding a bicycle by pointing in the right direction, then holding the handlebars rigid and pedaling, eyes closed. Organizations need more dynamic methods for steering their work, to gradually shift from predict-and-control, to experiment-and-adapt, and finally to true sense-and-respond. Like riding a bicycle, dynamic steering involves pursuing a general aim by adapting continuously in light of real data about present reality.
Q: What is one technique or approach people could start applying today to cultivate more of the inherent creativity in their organization?
Robertson: Whenever you feel the need to predict-and-control a project or decision, stop and ask yourself how you could enable more dynamic steering. Typically this means establishing tight feedback loops and frequent opportunities to steer down the road. Shift your planning and decision-making processes to focus on quickly reaching a workable decision and then letting reality inform the next step, rather than agonizing about what “might” happen in an effort to conjure up a theoretical “best” decision that still doesn’t quite get it right.
Move swiftly from discussion and planning to actually testing decisions in reality and learning from the results – plans which start out imperfect will become well-aligned with actual needs through a continual process of facing reality and incorporating feedback.
In regular operational meetings, you can build your agendas at the start of the meeting, in that moment based on present tensions, rather than bringing a pre-established agenda in advance. Then stay laser focused on just identifying the next action needed to move each issue forward, and move on – get through the entire agenda every meeting.
When confronted with the need for a decision, resist the urge to compulsively make it; instead ask yourself when you need to make it, and delay to the end of that timebox – delaying decisions to the last responsible moment allows you to collect more data in the meantime. These shifts will help an individual or a team more move towards dynamic steering and the creativity it enables.