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The rules of the game

Written by Joris Engbers on 17th March 2015

The rules of the game

In the coming months, Spindle will be trying out a new way to organize our work. They call it ‘Holacracy’ and it should be awesome. You may have heard from it, because organizations like Zappos and our friends at Concept7 have tried it and they are enthusiastic enough about it to spread the word.

I could try to explain exactly what Holacracy is, but to be honest, we can’t really say that we know exactly how this is going to change Spindle. The truth is, none of us has worked in a Holacratic organization before and this is why we have asked Holacracy coaches Koen Bunders and Diederick Janse of Energized.org (read Diederick’s book Getting Teams Done for an introduction to Holacracy in Dutch) to guide us through the first months.

Of course there are some things we expect to be affected in a positive way by Holacracy. We like to experiment, but if we would have jumped on the bandwagon of every new management hype, we would have been a disorganized group of terribly unhappy people by now. As far as organizational theory goes, the main theory so far has been that: “If you put a bunch of smart and enthusiastic people in a group, great things will come of it… Oh, and no management!”.

This theory has proven to be remarkably effective. So what is it that leads us to search for a way to improve this model? What is it that we hope to get from Holacracy?

Where do I get a stapler?

After all, we already are an awesome organization. Why the need for improvement? First of all, improvement is in our DNA. Everyday we strive to become at least 1% better (yes, accounting for compound interest, that means we aim for 3778% improvement between January 1 and December 31 of each year). It is only logical that we are not only looking for ways to improve our software, but also the organization as a whole.

There are probably more things we can improve than we can even imagine, but let’s just look at one example. Take the example of the new employee: after working at Spindle for over a year, I have a pretty clear idea of where I need to start if I were to find myself in a situation where I really need a stapler. I know which colleague – let’s call him Bob – generally buys office equipment and I’d probably ask him where we order things like staplers and if he knows what account I should use.

Now imagine being new at an organization where there are no managers, no job titles and no organograms. If you were to need a stapler (why would you need a stapler?), you would ask me if I know who is in charge of staplers. I would probably tell you to ask Bob and before you know it, you would find yourself with a brand new shiny red stapler. So where is the problem in this situation?

Imagine doing this for all the small things that ordinary office dwellers have to do on a regular day. You could see it as a great way to get to know everyone in the organization, but you could also see it as a waste of time that could be spend on more important things like playing football games, drinking coffee or staring out the window.

Now, Bob has become (rightfully) bored with being the sole person responsible for office utensils. The initial thrill of ordering staplers has faded and he has asked another colleague – probably Alice – to take over (part of) his tasks. I was not there when they agreed on this and now I have sent you to Bob, who is probably kind enough to show you how to order a stapler, but is also a little annoyed with me for sending you to him. Now he wants to tell me and has to interrupt me. Probably at the most inconvenient moment, during the last minutes of a breathtakingly exciting football match.

Game rules

This is the kind of situation where we hope that Holacracy will make our lives more pleasant. In Holacracy, any particular thing that needs to be done for Spindle to function is documented and added as a responsibility to a role. Sticking with the example of the red stapler, one of Bob’s roles would have been ‘buyer of office utensils’.

Who fulfills which roles is documented in a central place, so now instead of asking around, the new colleague would have looked up who is responsible for office utensils, and would have found that not Bob, but Alice is now responsible for office utensils and would have asked her. She would probably have been thrilled as she ordered her first red stapler. And they would both have time to drink coffee or whatever they need to do to recover from doing anything as intensive as ordering staplers.

I could think of more situations where I hope that Holacracy will help us to organize our work in a better way. But really so far it’s all theory for us, we are just starting out and I am excited to see how all of this is going to work out. Holacracy as I see it, is essentially a corpus of game rules to organize work. In the next few months Koen and Diederick will show us how they think that this game should be played. In the end though, no one is forcing these rules on us. It’s our game and we get to make the rules, it’s just that agreeing on the game rules, generally makes the game more fun.


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