It was during my training in organisational development that I heard for the first time about “self-organising teams” as well as Sociocracy and Holacracy. Wanting to know more, I quickly found out that Sociocracy and Holacracy are tightly linked. But where to start when you want to learn more? I’m still not an expert on the topic. Based on the courses I’ve taken so far, I can nonetheless share some insights which I hope will make it easier for you to choose which is the right for you.
For those who have no idea what any of these are: Organisations need to be structured and roles and responsibilities need to be defined. Most of the time, this is done in a top down manner: Some management team or person defines tasks, roles, responsibilities, processes etc. and others have to fulfil these. This may be the right thing in some situations. In others, it seems that teams are more effective if they can define themselves how to get the work done. Both Sociocracy and Holacracy are management practices that allow to do this that still guarantee the coherence and cohesion of the organisation as a whole.
Sociocracy, also called “dynamic governance” emerged as a management system in the middle of the 20th century. It’s four basic principles are:
- Decisions are taken by consent
- The organisation is structured in circles
- These circles are interlinked
- Members of the team, in particular the “leaders” are elected.
The development of Holacracy started in 2007: Brian Robertson took various elements of Sociocracy, refined the concept and added a couple of other elements.
What the two have in common
Before I start with the differences I’d like to mention: For me, Holacracy and Sociocracy have more in common than there are differences. In particular: They both enable teams to self-organise: While they preserve a certain “hierarchy”, it’s not a hierarchy of power, but rather a functional hierarchy that distributes power throughout the whole organisation.
But to look at the differences, I see them in the following points:
Sociocracy is definitively a politically “left” concept (just the name may induce this for many people). This reflects on various levels: The majority of people I have met at Sociocracy courses where from non-profit organisations. Discussions about what’s wrong with our world (e.g. poverty, injustice, …) but also “the inner circle” (ourselves) are formally part of the programme. Many seem to see in Sociocracy the ideal solution for how our society should work as a whole.
Holacracy in turn does NOT have political connotation. It has been developed with the goal of optimising the functioning of agile organisations and is used as much in non-profit as in for-profit and governmental organisations. Discussions about how to “save the world” are NOT part of the training programme. The personal development however is: Self-organisation and accountability are vital to make it work. And in the end it comes back to how power is distributed within a system.
What I heard repeatedly is that people consider Holacracy as something very “American”: Very polished, centred around a charismatic “founder”, protected intellectual property (with open source elements though), and very expensive (more about this below).
First a word about “rigidity”: By creating clear boundaries, you also open the space for freedom within these boundaries. Clarity about who does what and under which conditions brings transparency. As we’ll see below, “rigidity” can actually massively boost agility.
One point I heard repeatedly is that people consider Holacracy as something much more rigid than Sociocracy.
In general, for both of them one has to follow a “protocol” for decision making. Also: decisions have to be documented.
This “protocol” is indeed much more developed in Holacracy: It starts with a “constitution” that defines underlying principles, and when adopting Holacracy, the leaders of an organisation (the “ratifiers”) have to sign this constitution.
Like in Sociocracy, there is a protocol for decision making. Each “objection” to a proposal is tested way more thoroughly” (also see “agility” below).
As for documenting things: Holacracy is usually used with an online system that allows to define roles (and assign people to fulfil these roles), but also manage meetings and document everything in a very detailed manner.
Having worked a bit in traditional quality management, I’d say that an organisation that has successfully introduced Holacracy probably fulfils most if not all requirements of a system like ISO 9001 (which I’m not sure would be the case with Sociocracy).
Several mechanisms in Sociocracy aim at continuous improvement / evolution of a system. The focus is however not explicitly on “agility”: People are not explicitly encouraged to speak up when they feel that there is something that could be changed.
Agility is a major element of Holacracy. Even the slogan of HolacracyOne (the organisation behind Holacracy) is to “bring up a tension”: If you feel like something might be improved by changing it, say it!
Focusing that much on change and improvement in itself stimulates agility. However, combining this with the thorough testing of each objection to a proposal, one gets an “agility powerhouse” with all the elements one finds in traditional agility and scrum.
Regarding agility of the organisation: Normally if you want to change something in an organisation the decision makers (normally someone higher in the hierarchy) have to be convinced of it. In Holacracy (and to a certain extent also in Sociocracy), the logic is reversed: A change in the organisation goes through not when the majority of the bosses agree to it, but once the concerned people (which may or may not include upper level hierarchy) have no a valid argument against the change. A what “valid” is, is very clearly defined. Something like “I don’t like the idea” or “I’m not convinced that this really helps” is not a valid objection.
Separating people and roles
Sociocracy does not make a difference between people and roles (it can be done though).
In Holacracy roles are defined and then people associated to roles. One person can have multiple roles. This makes it considerably easier to move people within an organisation (or to define job descriptions by combining the requirements for different roles).
Sociocracy is truly a democratic system: Even the top level position of an organisation is “elected”.
In essence, Holacracy uses the same internal democracy. It’s a less formal “election” though: It’s the same process as for every governance decision: roles are defined and then people attributed to roles).
There is one exception though: The “ratifiers” of the constitution (e.g. the founders of an organisation) can not be removed.
Cost for the training
The price tag of the Holacracy course is very high, this is why I started with taking courses in Sociocracy, and only later signed up for the first course in Holacracy.
To get going with Sociocracy, you should take at least module 1 and 2 (3 days each), ideally also module 3 (again 3 days) of the Sociocracy training as defined by the international Sociocracy Group. Altogether this costs something like 1500 to 2500 Euro (not including lunch).
The Holacracy Practitioner Training (4.5 days) costs something between 3250 and 4000 Euro (including lunch).
And: Should you be interested in becoming a Holacracy trainer or consultant, note that currently you will have to hand over 15% of your gross revenue to HolacracyOne, the organisation behind Holacracy.
So how to choose
I don’t have the experience and knowledge to say if any of these two are better. For those who need to take a decision on what to do in their own organisation: My suggestion would in any case be to look into what fits better to your organisation: If you are an organisation driven by ideals, Sociocracy may be a better fit. If the “left” connotation of Sociocracy is a problem for you and you can afford it, go for Holacracy. You will probably – like me – be surprised by the very high quality of their training.
Or you may want to look into the next big thing. It seems like this could be “Teal”, about which I can’t say much yet, but I invite you to discover it here.