Medium aspires to empower individual voices and avoid the bureaucracy that often accompanies traditional organizational structures. As a result we have explored new management philosophies as we figure out what fits us best and what will scale. For the last few years we’ve applied a system called Holacracy. Recently we decided to move beyond Holacracy and wanted to talk directly about our experience with the system and where we go next.
Holacracy is designed to move companies away from rigid corporate structures and toward decentralized management and dynamic composition. Teams are largely self-organized, and individuals operate with a fair amount of autonomy. Ideally, this puts the work at the forefront and lets the company’s organizational chart form to support it, rather than the other way around. As Holacracy’s co-founder Tom Thomison puts it, “Nothing gets in the way of the work.”
There is much we admire about the philosophy. Holacracy emphasizes that authority does not need to be centralized and puts trust and responsibility in the hands of individuals at all levels. The ethos of Medium is that great ideas and fresh perspectives can come from anywhere. It made sense to embrace an internal system that seeks the same fluidity.
Holacracy also reflects a modern view of work. Classic org charts are often linear and inflexible; in reality, people have the talent to play multiple roles in a company. Holacracy allows for that, regardless of manager or department. And while a managerial structure is in place — every initiative has a leader — it is designed to be lightweight, cooperative, and transitory. Groups come together around a shared purpose, then disband when the work is done.
At the same time, the system presents its challenges. Our experience was that it was difficult to coordinate efforts at scale. In the purest expression of Holacracy, every team has a goal and works autonomously to deliver the best path to serve that goal. But for larger initiatives, which require coordination across functions, it can be time-consuming and divisive to gain alignment.
Holacracy also requires a deep commitment to record-keeping and governance. Every job to be done requires a role, and every role requires a set of responsibilities. While this provides helpful transparency, it takes time and discussion. More importantly, we found that the act of codifying responsibilities in explicit detail hindered a proactive attitude and sense of communal ownership.
We’ve also been challenged by Holacracy’s public perception. The general purpose business press hasn’t shown much nuance in reporting on it. While there are a few deeper examinations out there, many of the headlines read like this:
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Holacracy has become fraught with misconceptions that make it hard to separate the actual system from the imagined one. In recruiting, this became a problem — particularly among more experienced candidates, who worried that they were being hired as “bosses” in a boss-less company.
Those misconceptions do not define Medium. We are lucky to employ a group of passionate and self-motivated individuals, who make meaningful contributions to strategy, workflow, and culture, regardless of seniority. And we have bosses — people who have the experience of scaling companies, leading through hard challenges, and developing teams. These people build consensus when it’s possible, and make difficult decisions when it’s not.
We want to build a place where both can thrive.
So we’re off Holacracy. Not because it didn’t work, or because it’s “wacky” or “fringe.” We are a little wacky and fringe, and we’re okay with that. We are moving beyond it because we as a company have changed and want to make fundamental changes to reflect this. Many of the principles we value most about Holacracy are already embedded in the organization through how we approach our work, collaborate, and instigate change. Beyond that, the system had begun to exert a small but persistent tax on both our effectiveness, and our sense of connection to each other.
For us, Holacracy was getting in the way of the work.
To move forward thoughtfully, we’ve established a set of principles to clarify how we want to organize and manage the company. We hope that these principles will persist over time, though the manner in which we apply them will necessarily evolve as we grow and the complexity of our business increases.
1. Individuals can always instigate change.
2. Authority is distributed, though not evenly or permanently.
3. Ownership is accountability, not control.
4. Good decision-making implies alignment, not consensus.
5. The system is designed to be adaptable.
6. Corporate transparency, driven by technology.
We have a team internally working to translate these principles into a functional system: a rubric for decision making; a process for assigning ownership and greenlighting key strategic initiatives; and tools to map our organization and track work.
Our experience with Holacracy was positive, and it’s likely that Medium — both the company and the product — would be worse without it. At a critical point in our company’s trajectory we adopted a system that values initiative, passion, and above all, nimbleness.
We recognize that our experience is not everyone’s, and we retain a deep respect for the creators of Holacracy. The management model that most companies employ was developed over a century ago. Information flows too quickly — and skills are too diverse — for it to remain effective in the future. The team at HolacracyOne is doing innovative work in thinking about how companies can evolve.
We want Medium to be among those companies pioneering new ways to operate. We would love to hear ideas from others on what has worked for you. And we’ll share our experiences from time to time as we go through this process.