Liberating structures… holacracy and consensus

holacracylogo_nickI sat up late chatting to Nick Osborne last night. Nick’s recently become a certified practitioner in Holacracy and I wanted to get a better sense of the Holacracy model and ethos. According to

“Holacracy is a real-world-tested social technology for purposeful organization. It radically changes how an organization is structured, how decisions are made, and how power is distributed.”

There are significant overlaps with formal consensus decision-making. Hence the relevance to our work at Rhizome. There are also significant differences, amongst which is that holacracy has a different relationship with hierarchy. That’s of real interest given the number of times I’ve been asked how formal consensus can be applied to hierarchical organisations. I asked Nick to clarify:

“In one sense Holacracy is not designed to work in hierarchies and in another sense it is. It doesn’t work in hierarchical power structures, and replaces the power structure with a holarchic, fractal, distributed  structure. But it does work with a hierarchy of scale….What that means is that different levels of the holarchy work at different scales, some being more focused on specific areas, some being more general and including those other areas. Like concentric circles.”

When Nick first suggested Rhizome folk look at Holacracy, back in the summer of last year, I found myself with considerable internal resistance – the slick website, trademarked process, and the obvious similarities to formal consensus decision-making. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was just another attempt to critique and then repackage consensus decision-making for sale to a new market. Others in Rhizome seemed to share some of this resistance. Having spoken to Nick at length I’m more open-minded, but a long way from being seduced away from formal consensus as a preferred approach.

It seems to me that many of the issues with consensus decision-making that holacracy seeks to address, whilst very real, are possible to fix within the consensus model if the values of cooperation are better supported. But the fact that consensus so often works so poorly may demonstrate that new models are indeed warranted, however unpalatable I personally find that.

Here’s more in video form

I’m struck (and slightly uncomfortable) with the idea of “a governance system that’s not of the people, for the people, by the people but of the organisation, through the people, for the purpose”. I like my democracy to be human, but on the understanding that humans can, collectively, aspire to and achieve great things. And this seems to be one difference between formal consensus decision-making and holacracy. Both are liberating structures, but I view consensus as an aspirational structure that supports a collective to be more than the sum of its parts, to work towards the most inspirational decision it can reach. Holacracy focuses on meeting people where they’re at, warts and all, and setting them within a strict set of rules that leaves no room for ego. When people are attempting to act in the interests of their ego rather than the interests of the organisation, that becomes very apparent and the rules don’t allow egos to dominate. I heard Nick say that perhaps the structure of holacracy restricts people more than that of formal consensus, but if it does it is to maximise the potential for liberation.

Nick and I talked a lot about those rules. After all, how do you get people, especially those into alternative democratic systems, to follow the rules when those rules chafe against self-interest? Nick argued that the rules are liberating. Very quickly everyone sees that they have the same autonomy and the same voice as everyone else. The facilitator upholds the rules rigorously – tolerating no interruptions in any of the various rounds that make up a discussion. But everyone has a voice in that round, and everyone can add their ‘tension’ to the agenda. So I may be silenced if I speak out of turn, but I’m also able to put my issue onto the agenda to b processed in its own turn. The assertive facilitation required to uphold the rules seems contrary to our meeting culture, says Nick, even rude, but is so effective that that’s soon forgotten.

One example of that assertive facilitation is in challenging objections to a proposal. In formal consensus this can be a very tricky moment for participants and facilitators alike, and one we’ve written on before. Many groups stumble here, and poor dynamics are created and repeated. Holacracy equips facilitators with a series of incisive questions with which to challenge objections. If the answers are unsatisfactory the objection isn’t valid – it’s more likely to be about ego than the shared purpose of the organisation.

If I’ve understood it right, in holacracy it’s only in matters of governance, where decisions get made about how authority is distributed, that consent is required, and a process akin to that of formal consensus happens. Nick commented that “It’s a very specific form of consent as defined by the ‘Integrative Decision Making’ process, which doesn’t mean that everyone has to agree, it means that no-one has any objections according to very clear criteria for what counts as objections.”

In most work areas within an organisation individuals are effectively autocrats. Power is distributed rather than shared. This means that no-one has the authority to be able to control how anyone else fulfils their roles.

Liberating structures, not about people, autocrat in role more like consensus in governance, rigour of testing objections to deny ego, strength of the facilitator role in upholding “the rules of the game”

Nick and his colleague Clement Hopking will be taking a 1 day holacracy workshop around the country over the next year. The first event is in London. I hope to join them when they come closer to my neck of the woods.



10 thoughts on “Liberating structures… holacracy and consensus

  1. Well thats that then! All straightforward…but is that the peoples consensus holacracy front or the front for holacracyconsensus.

    • One of the reservations I had about holacracy was that it was just another variation of consensus that someone had “invented”, added fancy new language to, and then trademarked for resale. I’m still wrestling with the idea – there are things holacracy does that often don’t happen in formal consensus. But that’s not to say they couldn’t happen. It’s perfectly possible, in consensus, for a group or organisation to consent to distributing power (many groups do this all the time by giving mandates to working groups or sub groups). It’s perfectly possible for a facilitator to test out objections rigorously to see if they’re about ego, or personal values or are indeed valid according to the shared purpose, vision and values of the group. But it does seem like there are some real differences (if only of emphasis) between holacracy and formal consensus, that are worth exploring.

      • I still have no idea what it is. To utilise a linguistic tool – a lot of nominalisations and not a lot of clarification. For example, what is the approach that the facilitator takes to an objection about a proposal – what words actually emerge from their mouths. What is the structure of this approach? And how is the order of different proposals determined?

      • We’ve had a lot of visitors to this post from a holacracy facebook group…. welcome to our blog! Maybe you;d like to answer Carl’s questions?

  2. Heya – I work with HolacracyOne and I can perhaps help clarify a few things. Thanks for the cool reflections in the blog post by the way… I for one learn a lot by comparing models with one another, so I appreciate the initiative here.

    I’m not an expert with formal consensus, but one key difference is that Holacracy is not a decision-making method, it is an entire “operating system” to run an organization, including different decision-making modalities, but far from limited to them. It also includes rules on how to structure an organization, how to distribute power between the different roles, etc.

    To Carl’s questions, it is true that there is a lot of “nominalisations”, as you call it. That’s because all the rules of Holacracy are expressed in the Holacracy Constitution (downloadable here: ) where the terms are defined in a very specific way, in order to avoid ambiguity. In fact, this constitution IS the entirety of Holacracy — so all the answers to your questions can technically be found in this constitution. If you don’t mind reading legalese, that is 🙂

    To answer your questions more practically about proposals and objections, facilitators don’t have a specific script to follow, they have rules of a process to enforce. However, the way we teach it is indeed by using specific phrases. For instance, when comes the “Objections Round” (there is a whole structure to those meetings with different rounds), participants can object to a proposal. But the facilitators don’t ask “Do you have an Objection?”, instead they asl “Do you see any reason why this proposal causes harm or moves us backward?”. If the Objector says Yes, he needs to give a reasonable explanation for why, so that his Objection can be considered valid. Furthermore, there are additional criteria for Objections to be valid that the facilitator can test by asking specific questions. Those criteria can be found in the Holacracy Constitution (Article 3.2.1, page 9, in the Constitution 3.0).

    It is virtually impossible to explain in a blog post comment all the subtleties of how the process works — just like it’s difficult to explain soccer by explaining the rules alone. In our workshops (including the introductory workshops that Nick Osborne and Clement Hopking are delivering), we spend a lot of time actually practicing the method. Of course, don’t take my word for it. If you are curious, we are giving a free Webinar on March 6 that you’re welcome to attend: . There is an extensive Q&A time at the end where you can dive into the specific questions that interest you.

    Hope that helps!

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