Ecolocracy is a method of translating the ‘philosophy of need’ into a effective, ethical practice. It is a proposed management system developed through dialectical materialism and systems thinking. It has been designed for organisations that want to effect change in the world, while simultaneously “being the change you want to see in the world”. This is part two of an introduction to ecolocracy, and for this to make any sense at all it does need to be read following part 1.
Read, Why we need 'ecolocracy'
Read the On The Nature of Change (OTNOC) series
Monday morning and the staff member sits at her desk, alongside the rest of her team. The team works on a project. It is part of a department working together on a programme. There is also the IT team, and the finance team. The HR team. It can get pretty tribal, and blame and failure is usually displaced to the others, over there.
There is a necessary level of organisation between the whole organisation, and the individual member of staff. It is very difficult to get anything done alone, and often more difficult when meetings involve more than 12 individual. But the team is not the only solution. The ecolocracy organisation uses ‘circles’.
The circle - or hola - is the core concept for Holacracy. The key differences are that a circle is constituted of a cluster of roles, rather than made up of individuals. The circle - like the role - has a purpose to express, domains to control and a set of accountabilities to enact.
A circle can be responsible for core operations, and ongoing work. They can also be formed around a particular project, or indeed an emergency task. A circle can also be ad hoc, and brought into being to deliver a specific project or outcome.
A Holacracy looks like a series of nested circles. The biggest circle contains the entire organisation. This circle is called the ‘anchor circle’. Circles bring together a set of roles. Some organisations will be a single circle. Some organisations will have circles, and independent roles. Circles can bloom and then be pruned in a short period of time.
Each circle retains a high degree of autonomy, individual authority, and wholeness. Each role and circle has real responsibilities as a part of a larger entity. The primary responsibilities of each circle and role are: offering transparency; processing requests, accountabilities and projects; and prioritisation. (These are further defined in the next article).
However, the autonomy of the circle is limited (or mediated) through the regulatory relationship with both inner and outer circles. The decisions and actions of a circle are not therefore fully independent of others. It remains part of a larger circle. Again, needs serve as a primary concern.
Robertson said: “[A] circle that behaves as if it were fully autonomous will harm the system...The needs of other circles must be taken into account in the self organising process.”
The work of circles can vary in type and scale. Some circles deliver specific projects, others manage a department or product line, others perform support functions and provide overall business operations.
The circle members bring tensions they experience in performing their roles to the circle. These tensions can be resolved by taking actions and through governance. Each circle holds both tactical and governance meetings. (Tactical meetings are described in the previous article, and governance is described in the next).
A single individual can be appointed to one or more role, and can therefore participate in a number of different circles. The members of the circle have three further obligations: transparency, processing and prioritisation.
Transparency requires members to share, or provide access to, their task list with colleagues. This would include a list of projects and next actions, the relative priority attached to each, the projections - a rough estimate of when the item will be completed - and also their checklists items and metrics.
Processing means adding all requested tasks into the task list and assigning them a priority. Each circle member needs to process accountabilities and projects - including having a clear next action. They need to capture the requests for projects and next-actions. If someone has requested to impact the domain of the role this should be considered, and an explanation given if declined.
The circle member has a duty to process all requests before getting on with “ad hoc execution” - the day to day of doing tasks. This includes prioritising each of their tasks. Members of the circle can then see when tasks are likely to be completed.
Robertson said: “You have a duty to prioritise processing inbound messages and requests from fellow circle members over performing next actions for your own roles, except for certain time constrained work. This relates to processing - not necessarily doing the requested action.”
Further, circle members need to prioritise any governance or tactical meeting, except in exceptional circumstances.
The defining principle for circle members is the needs of the circle take priority over meeting individual goals. “You have a duty to prioritise in alignment with any priorities or ‘strategies’ specified by the lead link of the circle,” Robertson explained.
Lead Links and Rep Links
The circle differs from the team because there is no team leader or manager, and there is someone to represent the needs of the roles within the circle in discussion with the rest of the organisation. Instead of a manager, there is a ‘lead link’, and there is also a ‘representative link’.
The lead link role and the rep link role each distribute information between an outer circle and an inner circle. The roles are part of both governance and operations. They mediate the relationship between the whole and the part. The roles bring human consciousness to the relations between the circles in the organisation. They allow for feedback and tensions to flow between the circles.
The lead link is appointed by the outer circle and to represent its needs in the inner circle. A lead link holds the perspective and functions needed to align the inner circle to the “purpose, strategy, and needs of its broader context”.
Robertson said: “The role of the lead link serves a key function in every circle, but don’t confuse it with the role of a traditional manager...It is not the lead link’s job to direct the team, or to take care of all the tensions felt by those in the circle.”
As lead link “you hold the space within which the purpose of the circle can be fulfilled, and you keep out issues and concerns that are not within the scope of the circle”.
The lead link acts “as an interface”...”routing incoming information or requests to appropriate roles, and bringing resources into the circle and directing them to the most important functions, roles or projects in the circle”.
In a new ecolocracy, and indeed a new circle, the lead link role is an entrepreneurial role - you’ve actively building a structure to achieve a purpose.
The representative link, or rep link, is elected by the members of the inner circle, and represents them at the outer level circle. “A rep link helps make the super-circle a healthy environment for the inner circle,” Robertson added.
The rep link is a direct channel from within the core of the cell through its membrane. It is the rep link’s accountability - not that of the lead link - to channel tensions out into the broader circle if they are seen to be limiting the inner circle and cannot be resolved locally.
The quality of emergence is introduced to Holacracy in order to evolve the management system to ecolocracy. Emergence is a term used in systems theory to describe the qualities that can unfold from increased complexity - this phenomena is described in the popular idiom, ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’.
The Holacracy system appears based on the assumption that the individual can be the sole seat of creativity, agency, and effectiveness in the organisation.
It is true, that when projects are well broken down into tasks, these tasks become relatively simple and can be performed by a single individual. Just as it takes more than one neuron in the brain to have an idea, it always takes more than one individual to achieve genius.
However, the creativity that is emergent from a team of dedicated, intelligent individuals working together is lost. Therefore, the ecolocracy system introduces emergent meetings specifically for the purpose of creating space for this quality to manifest itself.
Emergence meetings can be called by any individual enacting a role for the purpose of developing collective creativity within the organisation. The role owner can extend to the invitation to anyone within the organisation to form a ‘coalition of the willing’. There is no obligation on the part of colleagues to attend. The process and the structure of the meeting is then the sole responsibility of those who participate.
There are times when one role or circle needs to delegate responsibility to - or be delegated responsibility from - another role or circle. These are times when decision making needs to be evolved for the organisation to function fully. This is done through a ‘policy’.
Robertson explained: “In Holacracy, a ‘policy’ is defined as ‘a grant or limit of authority to impact the domain of a circle/role’.
“A circle / role that controls a domain can set a policy in a governance meeting either to allow outside roles to impact that property or to prevent its own roles from impacting that property in certain ways.”
He warned that an expectation of what someone should do should be expressed as an accountability, and not a policy.
The circle is the ‘hola’ in Holacracy. And performs the same function in ecolocracy. The individual works to deliver the purpose of the organisation. This individual work can be organised on a day to day basis through tactical meetings.
But any individual is more effective when they work collaboratively with others. It is not always possible for an organisation to bring all of its members together.
In traditional organisations this is managed through teams - but too often teams can become tribes, and they are limited by the autocratic power of a team manager. The success of one team can be derived from the failure of another - and the manager will get promoted.
With ecolocracy, tasks and projects are delegated to roles, and roles are clustered into circles. A circle has responsibility for the project, or a particular workflow or support function.
The lead link of the circle ensures that its members work towards the purpose of the whole organisation, the rep link in a circle ensures the whole meets the needs of the individual in their work.
But how does a circle come into being? Who decides what projects and work a circle should manage? How are the purpose, domains and accountabilities negotiated, agreed and defined? This is where we need to understand governance - the subject the next section of this article.
Read, Why we need 'ecolocracy'
Read the On The Nature of Change (OTNOC) series
The power of ecolocracy resides within the governance process. The individuals who perform the roles clustered into the circle are all involved with the governance of the circle - although this involvement is specific and clearly defined.
An organisation run with the Holacracy management system is conscious of where it is currently, and where it would like to be in the future, at each scale - from the individual role to the purpose of the whole.
The circles hold governance meetings each month. These meetings can restructure the whole organisation - setting up new circles and roles, closing down redundant circles and roles, adding authorities and domains to circles and roles.
Governance represents the “meta-level” of understanding and organising how the purpose of the organisation is actually achieved. The governance process sets out the pattern in which work is achieved, rather than making any specific decisions. It is the whole defining the parts.
“Governance is fundamental: it is the seat of the organisation’s power, and all authorities and expectations flow from the governance process,” Robertson explained.
However, this is not the wild west. The governance process centres on the needs of the roles, and of the circles. The people enacting the roles are responsible for coming to the governance with tensions - changes necessary to travel from where we are to where we need to be.
The organisation evolves from the former to the latter through processing “tensions”. The concept of tension is the core of the governance when using the Holacracy management system. A tension can be understood as a need, or a problem that needs to be solved, experienced by an individual as they work to the purpose at the best of their ability.
The governance process is designed to empower the individuals within the organisation to meet their own needs, and use their ability to fulfil the purpose of the organisation - which in turn is a wider, social need.
People taking part in the governance process cannot trample over the roles of others, and an important aspect of the function of governance is moving out of people’s way. This is done through an integrative process which begins with the needs and freedom of the individual.
“Governance deals with deep issues by using an ‘integrative’ process to gather and consider people’s input, without relying on a single leader to arbitrate.” Brian Robertson stated. “Holacracy is not a governance process ‘of the people, by the people, for the people’ - it’s governance of the organisation, through the people, for the purpose.”
The governance process is performed through monthly meetings of each of the circles in the organisation, to refine the operating structure of the circle. Governance meetings have the following activities:
Creating, amending, or removing roles within the circle.
Creating, amending or removing policies (as defined below) governing the circle’s domain.
Electing circle members to fill elected roles (fasilitator, secretary, rep link).
Creating, amending or dissolving sub-circles
A facilitator is elected at each governance meeting and is responsible for ensuring that the specific process of governance set out below is followed. The facilitator is like a referee - a neutral, impartial role designed to protect the process and uphold the rules of the game.
Robertson explained that the responsibility of the facilitator is not to support or take care of the people: it is to protect the process - which allows people to take care of themselves. The role requires that you override any instinct to be polite or nice. You do need to cut people off. “Done well, the process feels profoundly impersonal”.
“When someone violates the process by talking out of turn, you simply stop out-of-process behaviour without emotion or judgement, and you do it immediately, without waiting for a comfortable pause.”
Governance meeting process
1. Check-in Round: Each member can share one ‘distraction’ with the group, and therefore purge any anxieties that will prevent them concentrating on the tensions at hand.
2. Administrative Concerns.
3. Agenda Building: Any participant can add one or more agenda item. The items must be described by one word or two word agenda titles, each representing a single tension.
4.Process Each Agenda Item using Integrative Decision Making Process (IDMP), set out below.
5. Closing Round. Each participant can share one closing reflection.
Integrative Decision Making Process (IDMP)
1.Present proposal: The proposer has a space to describe a tension and state a proposal to resolve it, usually without a discussion. The proposer can ask for a discussion to help craft the proposal - but not to build consensus or integrate concerns.
2. Clarifying questions: Anyone can ask a clarifying question to seek information or understanding. The proposer can simply say ‘not specified’. No reactions or dialogue are allowed.
3. Reaction round: Each person is given space to react to the proposal. Comments should be made as first or third person comments. No discussion allowed.
4. Amend and clarify: The proposer can optionally clarify the intent of the proposal further or amend the proposal based on the reactions, or just move on. No discussion allowed.
5. Objection round: The facilitator asks: “Do you see any reasons why adopting this proposal would cause harm or move us backwards?” Objections are stated, tested and captured without discussion. With ecolocracy, the facilitator then asks, “Do you see any reasons why adopting this proposal would cause harm to others, or to the environment?” The proposal is adopted if no objections surface.
6. Integration: Focus on each objection - one at a time. The goal is to craft an amended proposal that would not cause the objection - but would still resolve the tension. Once all objections are processed, return to the Objection round.
A proposal can be presented (at stage 1. Described above) when the facilitator agrees that the tension behind the proposal is limiting someone’s role, and the aim must be to remove that limit, for the sake of the role. A proposal may modify other roles in the process, as long as there is a reason.
A proposal can be discarded by the facilitator if the proposer cannot give a concrete example of how it would improve her or his ability to express the purpose or accountabilities of one of the roles. Any individual can propose something to help in relation to a role they do not fill - but only if permission has been given by the person currently in that role.
An objection is invited by the facilitator. She asks: ‘Do you see any reason why adopting this proposal would cause harm or move us backwards?’ You invite each person attending the governance meeting to respond, ‘objection’ or ‘no objection’.
An objection can block a proposal. There is a potential for conflict - and indeed sclerosis - to play out or set in during the governance process. Therefore, the power of objection needs to be limited, or regulated. This is achieved through a fair and transparent process.
A valid objection must cite a new tension that would be created by adopting the proposal: all of the following must be true:
1. The proposal would hurt the circle and not just fail to improve it - or (when using ecolocracy) the proposal would be a net harm to others, or a harm to the environment.
2. The harm would be created specifically by adopting the proposal - and would no longer exist if the proposal were dropped.
3. The objection arises from known data - or there would not be an opportunity to adapt before significant harm could be done.
There is one other thing worth noting. If the proposal had already been adopted, it would be necessary for the objector to process the objection as a proposal - that the proposal limits one of the objector’s roles.
The governance meeting then continues the objection round until all objections have been raised and tested. “We test objections with an attitude of scientific curiosity,” Robertson argued.
There is final stage where the governance meeting attendees attempt to ‘integrate’ the proposal with any valid objections. If this cannot be done, the objections stand and the proposal falls, at least until the next governance meeting.
The integration process begins with the valid objection being written on a board. The circle then works together to answer the following question: ‘What could we add to or amend in the proposal to dissolve the objection, while still addressing the original objection’.
When the circle completes the integration they then go back to the objection round and see if any further objections surface. If no objections are raised, the proposal is adopted.
“IDM is used only in the foundational domain of governance, and not to make operational decisions unless specifically required by the governance decision,” Robertson wrote. “Thus, the integrative process in Holacracy is used to define space for autocratic control of specific areas, along with appropriate boundaries on that control.”
The ecolocracy management system has been designed so that organisations can actuate their purpose of meeting a wider social need. This is done be ensuring each individual can contribute to the best of their ability, by ensuring their needs are met - including the need for autonomy.
The proposed management system is radically different from conventional organisational structures, which are in turn modelled on the military: divisions of men controlled by the commander who sets the purpose, sets the strategy, and sets the individual tasks.
So how does any real life organisation move from the current hierarchy and ownership to this radical alternative? This is covered in the next section: adopting ecolocracy.
“Holacracy is a systemic change to a new power structure, and it’s a binary shift: either power is held and delegated by a manager, or it’s held by the Holacracy constitution,” Robertson states. “Adopting pieces of Holacracy won’t change the power structure, and the change in power structure is where the real potential of Holacracy lies.”
The move to ecolocracy can - nonetheless - be relatively simple. In an organisation based on the traditional model a single owner or chief executive can adopt the Holocracy constitution and then enact the three defining changes that evolve the system into an ecolocracy. Where an organisation - a charity for example - is owned by a board of trustees and run by a management team, a majority decision at either or both levels may be sufficient.
“The aim of Holacracy is to distribute power from an individual charismatic leader, or chief executive, to a process which is defined in the written constitution,” Robertson explained. The chief executive officer needs to relinquish power by adopting the Holacracy constitution and cede power to its process, its rule system, in order to meet this aim.”
Five steps to bootstrap Holacracy:
1. Adopt the constitution.
2. Set up a shared system for governance records: circles, roles, accountabilities; metrics, checklists, projects.
3. Define your initial structure: the anchor’s lead link has the authority to define the initial structure, and the lead link of every circle within may further tweak the initial structure in their circle before - but only before - the first governance meeting.
4. Hold the first governance meetings and run elections.
5. Schedule regular tactical and governance meetings.
There are organisations where the owners and chief executive simply refuse to move away from the hierarchical structure. Power resides at the centre. It may be valued in its own right, or it may be assumed that the person with the power is also the only person with the ability and intellect to understand the purpose and strategy of the organisation.
In a profit making organisation, it may be the person with the power is paid enough to represent the interests of the person making the profit.
This being the case, the individual within the organisation has to recognise that power, but also the power they have as a member of the collective that through their labour deliver the purpose of the organisation. They also have the power to withdraw their individual labour - which could involve moving to a differently managed organisation.
Ecolocracy is a powerful new system for running impactful, resilient and efficient organisations. It mimics natural processes to distribute authority through a system while retaining a sense of purpose.
The Holacracy management system creates freedom for and empowers the individual member of the organisation. It does this by distributing power and authority to each of the roles. The role hold accountability for getting things done.
Roles are then grouped into circles. Each circle holds a governance meeting to clarify and evolves its own purpose, its domains and its accountabilities. This creates a dynamic and conscious organisation, that can evolve over time. However, there are limitations on each role and each circle. It is regulated by its environment.
Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist, founder of Request Initiative and co-author of Impact of Market Forces on Addictive Substances and Behaviours: The web of influence of addictive industries (Oxford University Press). He tweets at @EcoMontague.
Read, Why we need 'ecolocracy'
Read the On The Nature of Change (OTNOC) series