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Medium has no “people managers” and operates as a “holacracy”

First Round Capital has an anonymous post on its blog that details the “management” approach at Medium, Ev William’s new startup, a company building a new, curated take on blogging. The company has adopted Holacracy as its operating system and turned its back on conventional management

How Medium is building a new kind of company with no managers — First Round Capital

As one of the fiercest and most faithful adopters of Holacracy – a radical new theory of corporate structure – Medium is experimenting with a completely management-free environment that’s laser focused on getting things done. [Jason] Stirman [People Operations lead at Medium] couldn’t be more thrilled with the results: the freedom, the momentum, the productivity are all unparalleled, he says. But companies don’t have to go all-in on Holacracy to reap the benefits. If his transition from Twitter to Medium taught him anything, there are always more tactics to try to make things work better. Below, he shares his lessons from taking the leap.

[…]

Medium adopted the Holacracy model about a year ago. Calling it “hands down, by far the best way I know or have ever seen to structure and run a company,” Stirman says. He’s especially drawn to the strategy’s crystal clear minimalism and logic. “It’s basically an operating system for your organization, so the engineer in me loves it. In fact the Holacracy organization just released 4.0 of its constitution, so our company is upgrading – just like you would update to a new iOS.”

Here are some of the key tenets that Medium embraces:

  • No people managers. Maximum autonomy.
  • Organic expansion. When a job gets too big, hire another person.
  • Tension resolution. Identify issues people are facing, write them down, and resolve them systematically.
  • Make everything explicit – from vacation policies to decision makers in each area.
  • Distribute decision-making power and discourage consensus seeking.
  • Eliminate all the extraneous factors that worry people so they can focus on work.

“The structure is totally built around the work the company needs to achieve its purpose,” Stirman explains. “We don’t have a hierarchy of people, we have a hierarchy of circles.” For examples, the Reading and Discovery (or RAD) circle, containing roles dedicated to the site’s reading experience, is nested inside the Product Development circle, as is the Creation and Feedback circle, which is all about the content creation process. In this instance, the Product Development circle can review the results coming out of the nested circles to steer the product in a particular direction. Every member of a circle has a purpose that connects to the broader circle’s purpose, which connects to the company’s purpose, so everyone is always pulling toward the same promised land.

This is the first time I have heard of Holacracy, strangely enough. Here’s a snapshot of how it works, from the Holacracy website

Holacracy is a real-world-tested social technology for purposeful organization. It radically changes how an organization is structured, how decisions are made, and how power is distributed.

holacracy

The premises that underlie Holacracy appear few but a mile deep. Two sides of this “operating system” are operations and governance. As Stirman alludes to in the First Round Capital article, the are no “people managers” in the conventional sense. Instead, people work autonomously in the roles that they have been asked to fill, cooperating with others who are likewise working autonomously. The determination of what roles exist and how they interact with others is not decided by management but through governance procedures that are intended to distribute authority, not to concentrate it. People work together in circles — which can be nested — and circles are based on a balance of authority among the interests of the enclosing circle or company, which appoints the lead link in a circle, and those working in the circle, who elect a representative link to stand in for them in governance discussions. Also, others playing major roles — working a large part of their time, or filling especially critical roles — also can become core players in a circle and have an equal voice in governance decisions.

The net impact is that all individuals and circles in a Holacracy are self-managing as long as they are making decisions with regard to how their role should get work done. They are all obliged — among other things — to openly share what they are working on and what  they believe is the next step for them to take in all of their projects.

The critical course corrections come from sensing “tensions” — the gap between the current state and a possibly improved state — and for those tensions to be resolved though either tactical operations-oriented meetings or governance meetings to work out changing roles and responsibilities.

Underlying Holacracy is a constitution — the company recently released version 4.0 —  a document that spells out how a “holacracy” operates. It is a hefty read, and I believe it will take me a few days to have it jiggle into shape in my head, at the least. This is the table of contents:

Article I: Energizing Roles

A role is Holacracy’s core building block for organizational structure. This article covers the basic authorities and duties conveyed to a partner filling a role.

Article II: Circle Structure

A circle contains and integrates many roles. This article describes how a circle is structured, and how the roles within it are assigned, elected, or formed into further sub-circles.

Article III: Governance Process

A circle’s governance process is used to define its roles and policies. This article defines the governance process and the ground rules for proposing changes or objecting to proposals.

Article IV: Operational Process

The circle members of a circle rely on each other to help get their operational work done. This article covers the duties of circle members with respect to supporting one another, and how tactical meetings work.

Article V: Adoption Matters

This article deals with the transition from pre-Holacracy to operating under this Constitution, and provides rules when adopting Holacracy within a board structure with a group of representatives in lieu of a single Lead Link.

I have written a great deal recently about the fast-and-loose organization and the fundamental changes involved. In particular, I have made the case that the fast-and-loose business will be based on something more fundamental than allegiance to the company’s strategic vision or personal loyalty to its leaders. The fast-and-loose business is built on everyone involved committing to the cooperative ethos, rather than committing to slow-and-tight operating models based on authoritarianism. This means rejecting consensus and the loosening the close ties of direct reporting.

I am going to look into Holacracy in the coming days. More to follow.