Holacracy Community of Practice Archive, 2015-2019 Community Holacracy Web Site

Setting up roles/circles

Hi there - does anyone have any examples/case studies of setting up roles and circles - how they made the decisions about how many circles etc? I am keen to start thinking about how our organisation could look but would love to read/hear about any other examples first. I have read the book which was helpful i.e. few circles to start with but still trying to get a sense for where some more traditional responsibilities/roles might sit -i.e. who is responsible for culture?

Any help/or suggestions of resources etc would be appreciated!

7 Replies
Eric Graham (Admin)

Hi Samantha, Most of this input is conceptual for me as I haven't started and org from scratch but having just come off a couple trainings, I can add a few bits here and hopefully others can as well.

Yes, best to start with fewer circles to begin with and let the work differentiate over time as it becomes. Better to let the governance process drive the structure via real tensions sensed and processed by the circle members, rather than designing up front.

More traditional functions may sit with the GCC level circle at first or be moved into a sub circle if there's enough activity and self contained work to split off into a separate circle. But, again, if it's not clear yet whether those functions needs to be broken off, consider keeping it at GCC until real tensions demonstrate further differentiation is needed. Of course, if all depends on how large the organization and how mature those functions are currently.

Hope that provides some initial guidance.


Samantha Gadd

Thank you Eric! We are only a small business - 17 people, so thinking the GCC will be all we need to start. I have a idea of what might evolve but will let this happen as tensions arise.

Stephan Jenner

At Telus partners we now have a work discovery process we use to determine the work done and thus the starting structure. We use 3 initial 2hr meetings to discover the work. The first meeting is uncovering it, the second meeting is clustering it and the third meeting is with the potential lead link in defining the initial roles/sub circles from the clustered work. Once completed we kick of an introductory day with the first governance and tactical. I have used this process a number of times now and it really helps to focus the team on structuring the circle on the work being done and not existing position descriptions etc. Its always hard to start off but through the process of focusing on the work I have now had many successful circle kick offs that we find really helps get over the initial hurdles of peoples fusion to their position and focus on the work/roles and not the people.

Jean-Michel Gode

Hi Samantha,
On my side, I use Holacracy for this step like a mapping tool. I set the initial structure by modeling on Glassfrog the effective structure of the company from what people are doing concretely day by day on the ground.

Actually, people describe very easily how the work is done.

I start usually by the general circle. After that, I hold the first governance meeting, so structure may start to evolve from the real tensions sensed by the role holders through the governance process. If needed, roles of the general  Circle may become sub-circles through a organic differentiation emerging need.

Karilen Mays

Samantha, With 17 people, you may want 2 circles to start. Get everyone a starting role w/ a purpose or accountability, or use Stephan's discovery process or something like that.


17 people is a pretty big GCC and can be unwieldy even if you have professional expert facilitation, so that is why I would consider starting w/ 2 circles instead of 1. 


As you can see there isn't a "right way" - which is as it should be since every organisation is different. Having said this I'm sure you can see the trends here. The way I last did it a few years ago seems to be most similar to the process Stephan outlined. I worked through value stream mapping, teased our the work from the value streams and the structure naturally presented itself to the group. Lean-Agile practitioners will recognise this as very similar to the first step of implementing a Kanban process withe a team - visualise the work.

Stephan Jenner

I concur with Richard anything you do needs to be grounded in the work. When we run the discovery session I do it spontaneously and without seeing any formal position descriptions and structural diagrams. The times we have used the existing structure and drawn out some starting circles I have found 2-3 meetings in its still all a bit fake and usually a project gets kicked of to discover the work anyway and make changes. So when we have started from a clean slate and focused on the work its been a much smoother start almost like a new beginning that has allowed people to show up in their roles focusing on the work and not the old habits and politics.


I just completed a circle that I felt was hard for clustering the work but the feedback I got was that what we produced was absolutely amazing for the first time the team had a clear view of the work happening in the area and in the words of the to be appointed Lead Link and amazing tool they can show their clients. They will be kicking off next Friday and they are much more comfortable with the process now its been show to be about the work.


So my advice focus on the work that is being done now not what you think should be done or what you believe others think you should do and you will have a great place to start. And as Karilen says there is probably at least 2 circles their but don't force it if it doesn't come naturally I am currently running a circle with 32 people in it and yes it is way too big and there is at least 3 circles in their but they where use to being that size as a department and the meetings currently run well because we have uncovered the work. The meetings do work and everyone can see it coming in terms of some sub circles and more structures but the change will happen grounded in tensions rather than in our belief of the ideal situation. This is an extreme case of course I call this circle the orphan circle because it was the department that took in everything that didn't seem to fit anywhere else but one of the exiting things about not overly structuring the beginning is we are now seeing as we bring on other circles where the orphans really belong at it will be less painful to move them as there is not a complicated circle structure at the moment the can sometimes hide them in layers. I hope that adds value I can ramble on sometimes