EDIT: I should make very clear that GitHub does not seem to have been employing holacracy as their organizing model. Instead, Tom Preston-Werner describes it in this talk as “business minimalism.” I was sloppy in equating the two. I do stand by the larger point that these anti-hierarchical models, whatever you call them, don’t deal with power structures effectively. Business minimalism and holacracy both seem to be trying to address the same problem, bureaucracy, without really dealing with why bureaucracies get to be the way they are in the first place. I also edited the title of this post replacing a colon with the word “and” to help clarify.
A couple weeks ago I was in a conversation with some of my progressive organizer friends about holacracy, the latest fad in tech culture which calls for organizational structures without any hierarchy (ie: managers). Some of them were really intrigued by the elements of empowerment and decentralization at it’s core. I felt differently. Holacracy always smelled to me like a naive reaction to bureaucracy, without really understanding how and why bureaucracies end up like they do. It also has this implicit disdain for people in organizations who are responsible for the softer skills that keep things running smoothly. You know, things like communication, empathy, human resources management, etc. I see these skills getting devalued in the tech world all the time. If you can’t build shit you’re not worth anything.
Watching this debacle go down at GitHub, I’m not at all surprised to hear (from my fabulous colleague Mike Migurski, who explains perfectly why I think holacracy is bullshit) that the co-founder implicated in the story was a believer in the holacratic ideal.
Channeling Marshall Ganz, the absence of structure is a structure in and of itself. When you allow a power vacuum to emerge someone will fill it, and it’s usually the people who have traditionally held power (rich white men). That’s how you end up with stories like this coming out of GitHub.
In the wake of this, I’m starting to think all of the problems we’re seeing with Silicon Valley these days—the ineptitude at politics, the clumsiness with handling inequality in SF, the lack of gender and racial diversity in the industry—are actually rooted in a systemic failure to understand how power works. As we move to an era where tech is central to our culture and economy, smart founders and investors will come to realize that stacking their companies full of people who understand politics and can create healthy cultures is as important to success as having kick-ass engineers.
The problem with management isn’t managers, the problem with management is bad managers. And it’s not hard to imagine that people who don’t understand how power works aren’t going to be very good managers.