‘Imagine there's no bosses, it's easy if you try,' as John Lennon didn't quite sing. A world without managers, top-down organisational charts, and that all too familiar kiss up/kick down behaviour might seem welcome, but is it achievable? Is holacracy the system we have been waiting for?
The term holacracy is derived from the Greek word holos, meaning whole. That word was adapted by the writer Arthur Koestler in his book The Ghost in the Machine, published in 1967. In it he coined the term 'holon', meaning 'a whole that is a part of larger whole'. As an organising concept holacracy replaces conventional hierarchy with a 'holarchy', which is a connection between holons. You may have been told that holacracy introduces a 'flat' structure. This is not really true. There is still a hierarchy of sorts, it is just disguised.
This book - a kind of manifesto - has been written by Brian J Robertson, a former software CEO whose consultancy business HolacracyOne spreads the word about this new approach, for a fee. His most famous client is Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retailer, which publicly embraced holacracy a year ago, but only this spring saw 210 people (14% of staff) leave in a rejection of the new company philosophy.
That might seem like bad timing from this book's point of view. But Robertson does not promise an easy ride. Holacracy involves a pretty radical change in the way you do things at work. For bosses, it means giving up the conventional positional power you may have worked years to attain. Robertson describes himself as a 'recovering CEO', and says that not having to pretend any more to be a heroic, all-knowing leader who 'empowers' his staff is part of the attraction of the new way of doing things.
Holacracy is about processes, not people. It is meant to downplay the personal and instead focus on the tasks that have to be completed. And this is, perhaps necessarily, a rather abstract and theoretical book. Robertson compares life in a city with life in a business. 'If the residents of our cities had to wait for an authorisation from the boss for every decision they made, the city would quickly grind to a halt,' he writes. 'Yet in our companies we see a very different organising principle at play.' To defeat - to remove - that old principle, circles (holons) of people are formed. This is where work happens. These circles do not have managers, but there are 'lead links' and 'representative (rep) links' and 'cross (connecting) links'.
The point is to distribute authority to roles, not to people. The different roles hold each other to account. 'Particular roles are invested with the authority to carry out certain tasks,' says Robertson. And if the responsibilities attached to a particular role become too much for one person to carry, that role can be sub-divided into several new roles, becoming a new circle of its own.
In a holacracy, meetings are supposed to be factual, based on clarifying questions ahead of personal opinions. The whole approach is meant to be highly impersonal. 'We are installing a system in which we no longer need to lean on our connections and relationships to be able to process organisational tensions,' Robertson says. This is 'peer-to-peer self-organisation' with 'distributed control', an emergent system designed to mirror how evolution works. This should make the system stronger.
Well, it's a theory. It may all sound a bit Star Trek: The Next Generation. But in its critique of rigid, unresponsive hierarchy this approach has something going for it.
However: driving out the personal, precisely at a time when we are worried about machines marching in to replace human beings, seems to me a pretty odd strategic choice to make. It is the cussed, creative and unpredictable nature of people that makes some organisations hard to imitate and hard to compete with.
Robertson compares holacracy to a new operating system. His consultancy even sells 'apps' to run your holacracy better. You could imagine this system working quite well in a start-up or SME. But in a larger firm, once this new OS is installed, I expect you would soon hear that traditional cry ringing out: 'Can we have our old one back, please?'
Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World by Brian J Robertson is published by Portfolio Penguin at £14.99
Stefan Stern is a visiting professor at Cass Business School. Follow him on Twitter: @stefanstern