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The Pursuit Of Holacracy

From The Iron Horse Brewery Blog

The Pursuit Of Holacracy


Iron Horse Brewery tends to have a unique way of doing things, everything really, and that extends to how we work on a day-to-day basis.

We are constantly striving to improve and make work an enjoyable place for our 45-ish cousins employed with us. We thought we’d give you a behind the scenes look at our management style. Here’s a Q&A about our pursuit of holacracy/self-management with Greg Parker, owner and GM of IHB, and Tyson Read, head brewer at IHB.


What is holacracy or self-management?

Greg Parker: Holacracy is a system of organizational governance developed by Brian Robertson that recognizes and embraces the Holacratic nature of systems. A holon, the basis for a holacracy, is a part of a larger whole, while being a whole unit itself. Like a cell in your body or a tree in a forest. I am a whole, but I am also part of the leadership team. The leadership team is a whole, and also a part of the entire organization. Coincidentally, I am also a ‘hole. Chief Bosshole to be exact, but as we move toward self-management that may no longer be the case. Self-management is a practice and belief that people don’t need managers. In a work environment, people need clear expectations and guidance at times, usually in the form of advice, but self-management believers recognize most humans are able to self-manage their personal lives and can probably do the same at work.


What was your first impression of Holacracy? 

Tyson Read: That it was a completely ridiculous concept dreamt up by a shut-in with no connection to the real world.  You can see why Greg was attracted to it. Really though, Greg has a history of interest in trendy management styles. He buys us all a bunch of books, maybe a coach or consultant, then we are all about it until it fizzles.  I thought this would just need to be waited out. What I didn’t realize? It wasn’t that Greg was easily distracted, it was that he was constantly searching for the next step in the same direction. The thing that will move us a little closer to a system that provides consistency, self-regulation, as well as autonomy.  All of this, so he can go mountain biking/snowboarding/whatever extreme sport he is too old for, whenever he pleases.

Greg: It seemed overly idealistic but absolutely amazing. Although my initial introduction to self-management wasn’t through holacracy. There are lots of other companies who are operating using self-managed principles and have developed elegant systems of their own. Holacracy just took it a step further and created rules to implement rather than the other companies’ systems which some boiled down to cultural norms rather than an actual playbook.


How has your opinion changed?

Greg: It is overly idealistic. There are a certain amount of people that want to show up and be told what to do and not engage their minds in their work. Even for those that do want to do it differently, our culture has done a pretty good job of discouraging independent thinking. Look at most schools: come in when we tell you, sit down, listen to the all-knowing teacher, do everything they assign, don’t question the material and you get a banana. Successful self-management requires constant questioning of the material. It takes a lot of convincing and reinforcement of that behavior to break the normal expectations we have for a workplace. It’s well worth it, but it’s not easy and some people will never be able to do it.

Tyson: My nature is naturally resistant, so I always start that way until I have a foundation of understanding, then I can begin to sway myself if it makes sense.  As Greg can certainly attest, I have traveled as far as possible from one spectrum to the other. Unfortunately, Greg sums it up pretty well. There is a massive break with the norm and that is potentially impossible for some.  What self-management is, is an ideal. A perfect state that we will continue to strive for but probably will never fully achieve.


How do you feel it’s going to help the brewery? Why did we decide to implement it?

Tyson: The biggest effect that I hope self-management achieves, is to increase the capacity for change.  By removing barriers to change, increasing the abilities of people, and providing the tools for employees to affect change, you increase the adaptability of your organization.  By moving the capacity for change to the people most likely to recognize the need for change, change can happen faster and in a more useful way.

Greg: Engagement. Engaged people are happier and better at what they do. We get better work in a better work environment. I think that answered both of those questions. Also, I have absolutely no desire to ‘boss’ another person around. Occasionally I will want to for a moment, then I realize that desire to boss comes from negative and punitive emotions. Honestly, if someone likes bossing others, I fear them, it’s kind of demented.


What has been the biggest challenge in moving to self-management?

Tyson:  Changing the way people think.  It is so contrary to the normal behavior of an organization that it takes a real push to move in the right direction.  The irony is not lost that it takes a traditional top down push to make these changes.

Greg: Understanding and belief. People are used to thinking a different way. Self-management isn’t a new way to think, but it surely is an uncommon way to think and operate in the workplace. It takes a lot of time and reinforcement of the practices for people to understand them and believe we believe in them and live by them. Once we’ve crossed over that hurdle the next one is implementation by the individual. I can read a music book and understand it but it does not mean that I am ready to play music. I have to practice and I have to be willing to accept that what comes out at first is going to sound like shit. That is what it is like with self-management at work. 


Do you think all companies should use this?

Tyson:  I don’t know.  I think it takes the right people and the right company.  I think all companies can make the change. Should they? Only if the right people understand it and are committed to the ideal.  

Greg: Yes, but the necessary conditions can’t be met at all companies. There are people in positions of power that love the power, they won’t give it up but with self-management they would have to.  Sometimes leaders are afraid to give up the power because of insecurities about the team, but they don’t have a choice in self-management. That’s the condition that has to be met in all cases. There are plenty of other conditions that will need to be met but it starts there and I don’t think that can happen for a lot of people.


Any other thoughts?

Greg: We are not a fully actualized self-managed company. I want to add that disclaimer. We are moving that direction but not fully there yet. I get pretty excited about the possibilities of self-management and the practices that are typical of self-managed companies. While the goal of self-management seems to have arisen from the desire to have a better organization, many groups have seen gains in the individuals working in them too. Many of the practices of self-managed organizations are the same practices that create healthy and balanced personal relationships. I truly believe that by moving in this direction we have the opportunity to help people become happier, more engaged in their personal lives, better citizens and ultimately more fulfilled as humans. It sounds overly idealistic, I know, but that’s the idea.

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