Is Holacracy a Dyson?

Dyson DC15

Yeah, like the vacuum cleaner.  Let me explain.

I always have a canine companion (or two) in my home, and fur is an inevitable result.  So when I went looking for a new vacuum cleaner a few years ago, the Dyson brand caught my eye.  It appeared well designed, made an interesting pitch about easy maneuvering and never losing vacuum, and seemed to get pretty good reviews. Although there were other name-brand alternatives that were less expensive, I decided to go with the Dyson.

And the Dyson does a nice job of cleaning as I easily maneuver it around furniture and other obstacles (like my canine companions).  I like my Dyson, but here’s the thing — when all said and done, it’s a vacuum cleaner.

Yes, my Dyson pivots on a ball; other brands also pivot by different but effective means.  My Dyson doesn’t use a bag, but after having disassembled the unit to wash and dry the filters, a bag doesn’t seem so inconvenient anymore.  And my friends and family who have their own furry pets express satisfaction with the performance of their non-Dyson vacuum cleaners.  All other things being equal, it seems that any well-designed vacuum cleaner will suck up dirt and fur.

Like my Dyson, Holacracy also offers some intriguing features and claimed benefits (I base my views on what I’ve read, having attended a webinar and participated in a “tasters” event). But I find the Holacracy Constitution, “a reference tool for someone who already knows the game and needs to look up a rule,” long and dense.  I don’t see a busy manager who is trying to get a job done paying much attention to the Constitution, and I can imagine how the pedantic manager could (with good intentions) regularly engage in argument about the nuances of the Constitution and end up spending more time debating than doing.

Regardless if one uses circles or org-charts, a company still needs people accomplishing work while acting thoughtfully and respectfully toward co-workers; certainly well-run conventional organizations achieve these ends today.  And even if a CEO brings Holacracy into her enterprise, adopts the Constitution and gets everyone following the rules, she can just as easily abandon it – just like the autocratic CEO at a conventional company.

So should one expect Holacracy to result in a work environment and output that is any “better” than conventional organizations?  I think a lot depends on definitions of terms, clearly articulated goals and objective metrics.

I accept that Holacracy is a thoughtful and well-intentioned effort, but I don’t (yet) see the actual benefits of Holacracy being all that different from well-run conventional organizations.  There are proponents at the helm of companies where Holacracy is being embraced, like Zappos and Springest.  There are also skeptics like Jan Klein and Steve Denning.  Both camps can claim to be on the “right” side of the argument because there appears to be little quantitative evidence to support either view.  Subjective claims of improvement may demonstrate the Hawthorne Effect – a potentially powerful but perhaps short-lived placebo.  Creating objective proofs to support claims of success will be challenging:

  • How would improvement be defined?
  • What objective benchmarks and metrics would be used to demonstrate that improvement as defined was achieved?
  • Can a firm benchmark against itself or would it need to benchmark against firms of similar size, competing in the same market, during the same period of time, with the same resources?
  • How would differences between a group of “similar” organizations be ruled out as the reasons for any measured improvement?
  • For what period of time would the organizations being measured need to remain stable in their structure and practice in order to avoid any bias or distortion over the measurement interval?

None of these measurement considerations, however, may matter.

If a company achieves its stated goals then won’t management likely attribute the success in large part to their skillful guidance?  And if a company gets into trouble then won’t management likely put at least some blame on its organizational structure and reorganize?  Anyone who has been in the corporate world has experienced reorganizations, helping move the furniture while hoping that things will get better.  I would bet that firms engaging Holacracy will also move some furniture of their own while reporting anecdotal stories of improvement – just like their conventionally organized peers.

See also…

3 thoughts on “Is Holacracy a Dyson?

  1. A thoughtful post and I particularly like how you articulated the difficulties in researching the impact of adopting Holacracy…though that is something I would like to tackle before too long. Using your metaphor….if the problem is dog hair, then Holacracy represents a new approach to the problem (e.g. hair-eating carpet?) rather than simply a better and more maneuverable vacuum.


  2. Let me know when you have that hair-eating carpet – what a great idea! Do you feel that Holacracy is as different from conventional organizations as a vacuum cleaner is from a hair-eating carpet?


    1. Haha! Will do. Well…it might be a stretch…I was just trying to use your metaphor to describe the qualitative difference between how conventional organizations are governed and how an organization using Holacracy is governed. Or if you prefer…to me, it’s the difference between a car and a “faster horse.”


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