What if Government Embraced Holacracy?

Holacracy is not a lack of structure; it is a new way of structure that allows organizations to be more agile and to more rapidly adapt to change.

by , / October 9, 2015

Holacracy in Government

The idea of using Holacracy in government is still relatively unexplored. Government agencies face some obvious barriers to adoption that private-sector companies do not — but that doesn't mean it's impossible to make the switch. In fact, one government agency is leading the charge.

Washington Technology Solutions, commonly referred to as WaTech, adopted Holacracy in early 2015. This project has received a lot of attention, and we are beginning to see a framework that other government agencies can use. To get an idea of how officials at the agency have approached Holacracy, we sat down with E-Government Director Michael DeAngelo, who is spearheading the experiment. Here are some takeaways from our discussion.

WaTech is the central technology department for the state of Washington. Located in an extremely competitive marketplace, officials were looking for new ways to recruit and retain IT talent — something government typically has a hard time doing because of bureaucracy, politics and the slow pace of change. They hope to adjust that by adopting Holacracy.

When the experiment began, officials had no idea what types of roadblocks they would face. Fortunately neither the legal nor labor departments could find any reason why Holacracy could not be implemented in government. That was a huge win, because nothing can squash change more rapidly than legal concerns.

To ease the transition, WaTech focused on a phased approach. Officials started with an opt-in phase where those who embraced the idea participated. Then they focused on educating those employees on Holacracy. With the help of HolacracyOne LLC, they rolled Holacracy out to the phase-one participants. They expressed the importance of working with a coach and facilitator when implementing Holacracy — it's a big change from a traditional hierarchical structure and something that only becomes familiar with experience.

Resources to implement Holacracy at WaTech were limited. The primary expenses were training, coaching and facilitation, followed by software to help manage the Holacracy governance. Both of these costs were low enough that it should not serve as a barrier to other organizations looking to adopt the structure.

The biggest struggle for WaTech during the implementation was learning to operate under Holacracy governance. The transition to governance replaces the executive- or manager-led organization. This is referred to as intelligent design. Instead, Holacracy uses what is called evolutionary design. This is when you design the organization in response to experiences and customer needs. In Holacracy, you manage the work, not the people. This is a big change from what organizations are typically used to.

Once Holacracy is up and running, the day-to-day management becomes second nature. WaTech has both governance and tactical meetings. Governance meetings address the organizational structure while tactical meetings focus on the operational issues. Tactical meetings will be familiar to many organizations, but governance will be something entirely new. While that does make them difficult, WaTech believes that the benefits outweigh the challenges to making the transition.

After running under Holacracy for seven months in a controlled group, WaTech is starting to see some of the benefits. Currently most of the data is anecdotal, but officials have been quantified a 20 percent increase in the confidence that employees have around resolving organizational issues. WaTech is currently working with Harvard Business School (HBS) on the second phase of its Holacracy transition.

By working with HBS, WaTech hopes to test more conclusively whether self-organization creates different employee outcomes. HBS will conduct a study that will include both a controlled group and Holacracy group. The study will last one year and HBS will gather a significant amount of data from both groups throughout.

"Regardless of how it ends for us, the fact that we got the ball rolling has really helped other governments think about a different way of organizing," DeAngelo said. 

If you are currently looking at Holacracy, here are three tips that DeAngelo provided to government agencies looking at adopting the governance structure:

  1. Just do it! The worst case scenario is you go back to the way you have always done things. 
  2. Be careful how you talk about it, because people get hung up on the term. Instead use terminology like "self-organization" and "empowering employees." After that, if they show further interest you can get into the actual system of Holacracy.
  3. Get facilitation and coaching. This is not something you can just pick up a few books about and then go out and do. 

Watch the full interview with WaTech's Michael DeAngelo

Where Do You Go from Here?

Just because examples of Holacracy in government are limited doesn't mean it's not a good fit. Holacracy could allow government organizations to adapt to the growing demands of its constituents more quickly and help prevent some of the politics and bureaucracy that plagues just about every government agency. Holacracy could be the future structure of government organizations — but we won’t know unless we try.

For organizations interested in moving forward with Holacracy, DeAngelo provides some steps to help you get started:

  • Re-evaluate your next couple of years. It takes time, so you must be committed.
  • Educate yourself and get the necessary training.
  • Have conversations with other organizations and experts.
  • Pick a division or team to start with. 
  • Hold your nose, close your eyes and jump in the water. You will figure out how to swim. 
IntroductionHolacracy 101: An Overview | Holacracy at Zappos | Holacracy Resources | Final Thoughts

Dustin Haisler Chief Innovation Officer, e.Republic Inc.

Dustin Haisler is the Chief Innovation Officer of Government Technology's parent company e.Republic. Previously the finance director and later CIO for Manor, Texas, a small city outside Austin, Haisler quickly built a track record and reputation as an early innovator in civic tech. As Chief Innovation Officer, Haisler has a strategic role to help shape the company’s products, services and future direction. Primarily, he leads e.Republic Labs, a market connector created as an ecosystem to educate, accelerate and ultimately scale technology innovation within the public sector. Read his full bio.

Tim Howell Contributing Writer

Tim Howell is a former government technology and innovation guru for multiple government agencies across the state of Texas. His leadership and tech savvy quickly landed him at the bleeding edge of the public-sector market. Recently, he has taken his years of experience and success and founded made4gov.  By rethinking government content and promoting healthy discussions, he helps government agencies adapt to new technologies and meet the growing demands of citizens. Tim is also the author of the Innovation PACT, The No-Nonsense Guide to Sustainable Innovation. You can download the first section of Tim’s new book at http://www.innovationpact.com/free.

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