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Published: 13 November 2015

Holacracy seen through yin eyes
Lisette Schuitemaker

What a splendid idea to read the book ‘Holacracy’ by Brian Robertson, the originator of this management system for a rapidly changing world, through the eyes of yin. Center for Human Emergence The Netherlands (CHE) adopted Holacracy already in 2009 and it is propagated by CHE Synnervate. With its strict rules of engagement and precise descriptions of roles this management system seems, at first glance, predominantly action oriented and thus very yang. To be honest when he trained us in the basic principles of Holacracy at the end of 2008, Brian himself made quite a masculine impression on me. No, there was no space for a conversation about the issue at hand. No, you could not speak out of turn. Yes, this was all about focus on the next step forward. Excuse me, I remember thinking at the time, might we be permitted to have an exchange of views in the way we are used to? His response was a resounding no, but in the years that followed we did what we had been used to do and thus we slowly but surely strayed to ‘Holacracy Light’.

In 2012, we decided to review our practice. In the meantime we had come to the conclusion that we might not even exist anymore if we had not embraced Holacracy at the time when the conventional way of running a foundation had gotten us stuck. Holacracy supported us in defining the roles necessary to bring our purpose to life and—more importantly maybe—to step away from the consensus culture in which everyone had a say in everything, which resulted in us not being able to move at all.

In Holacracy , each person rules autonomously over the area defined by the purpose of their role, the accountabilities that the organization can hold them to and the domain attributed to the role. When we reinstalled Holacracy, we also adopted the new online tool aptly named ‘Glassfrog’ for the transparency it provides. Every user can see who has tabled which projects with which priority. If someone puts something on the back burner that you need in order to fulfill your role, you can let them know straight away.

One of Holacracy’s golden rules is to take every tension that arises seriously. Why? Because a tension is an indication of a gap between the organization as is, and the organization how it should be according to you in service of the purpose. Some tensions can be solved operationally, for instance by someone simply giving a project a higher priority status. Tensions that require a more structural approach, can be brought into the governance meeting. There, according to a strict procedure, new roles, accountabilities and policies can be created. In this way you are continually reorganizing the organization, based on the reality of working within it.

I was raised with the idea that tensions are best ignored. So the practice of naming tensions was counter conditioning for me. Let alone, seeing tensions as valuable sources of information about how the organization might function better for the benefit of the common purpose. For me this was—and still is—the biggest challenge.

A challenge for us as an organization is that not everyone was able to attend the meetings in which we learned about Holacracy. Another issue is that people who form the communities of practitioners that we call constellations don’t officially have roles, yet we ask them to participate in the holacratic system. Recently this caused a tension within the Yin Constellation. It proved to be unclear what the Lead of this constellation was and was not authorized to decide on her own. Fortunately two great books have now been published on the subject. ‘Getting teams done’ was co-authored in Dutch by Diederick Janse who once held the role Holacracy Officer within the CHE. The other is the aforementioned book ‘Holacracy’ by originator Brian Robertson himself. How would it be, we wondered, to read this book through yin eyes?
When we spoke about our experience three weeks later, we were unexpectedly unanimous in our praise of the book. It proved a fascinating read as yin is as much represented on every page as yang. Or, like one of us stated succinctly: “I started reading from the vantage point of where I would find yin missing but halfway through I could not maintain this stance. I saw how this system helps us as women to bracket our feelings so they don’t take the upper hand while it supports men to release control knowing that everything will be addressed. I like it immensely.”

Yin and yang co-exist. As two aspects of the one they prompt one another in an eternal flow from the inside out, from movement to rest back to movement, from receptivity to action to receptivity again. We notice the yin-component in Holacracy in the language in which Robertson consciously replaces ‘problems and solutions’ with ‘tensions and processes’. We see it in the amount of attention given to what happens within the organization, within every individual who is considered to be a sensor for the whole, in the transfer of power from one person—the leader or the manager—to the constitution and the processes it prescribes. We find it in the task of the Lead to create the space in which the purpose can flourish, in the structure of meetings in which each one gets their turn to speak and all information is taken inclusive. Yang we find in the organizational structure in which the work can live, in the set-up of the meetings that serve the process, in making explicit what is implicit. We see it in the discernment of where information belongs and in the clarity in which everything always has an appropriate place to be dealt with so a next action can be identified.

Yin is the question that the facilitator asks when you put an issue on the agenda in an operational meeting: “What do you need?” Yang is the question that follows after a first exchange: “Do you have what you need?” Yin opens, yang sets a boundary and thus everyone is always clear on the topic at hand. One tension at a time—yang. When new tensions arise, you can put them on the agenda as we want to face everything—yin. Together this makes for an integrated process in which starting from a felt tension, the next step is identified. Nothing needs to be perfect, only workable for now. Everything can be reviewed at any time, if needs be, even in the same meeting.

Our tentative conclusion is that yin and yang are so interwoven in Holacracy that it is hard even to make the distinction, let alone useful. Thumbs up for Brian Robertson. Yang and yin play equally important, mutually reinforcing roles. The what and the how are in balance. That’s why this system works so well.