Holacracy and Sociocracy

The history of holacracy and sociocracy as I know it.

John Buck consulted with Brian Robertson to organize his company sociocratically years ago. Brian was very enthusiastic and was already a devotee of Ken Wilber. John enjoyed the exchanges with Brian since he is an intelligent and energetic person. I haven’t met him; I’m conveying John’s enthusiasm. Brian was on the sociocracy@yahoogroups list years ago. I was also on the agile software list — understood about 1/3 of the discussion but it was exhilarating.

It was the discussion of “code is poetry” that I find is missing in sociocratic literature and discussions. An aesthetic wonderment and striving for perfection.

Brian had, and may still have, a very interesting business model. His company, Ternary Software, didn’t do work under contract. If they decided to work with a company, they became their IT department. Thus they only worked with companies they had confidence in enough to join instead of contracting for services without that kind of involvement. It also meant an ongoing relationship. In this way, they were networked to a set of companies. I don’t know how large Ternary was so I don’t know how extensive the network was/is.

Brian was interested not only in beginning a new enterprise with a name he could trademark and market, but also in integrating some of Ken Wilber’s ideas. I haven’t spent the time to figure out what he has added, or the time I have spent has not revealed this to me in any thing close to clarity, but he has always been open about the roots of holacracy being sociocracy.

There was an article in the Booz Allen internal newsletter a few years ago in which he explained his theory and talked extensively about sociocracy.

For many years John and Brian talked monthly or so about developments in their work. i don’t know if this is still happening but it wouldn’t be unusual that I don’t know or that John is still talking with him. John is a very outgoing person and his phone is pretty much attached to his right hand.

Why Brian named it “holacracy” instead of “holocracy”, he has explained. I don’t remember the explanation but it reflected a tendency I see in sociocracy too — to emphasize the organizational/business base instead of the theoretical base. By this I mean the closed focus on developing norms rather than open discussion about systems theory.

The holacracy people have apparently become very closed and proprietorial. I would love to hear from people who are currently involved with holacracy.


6 thoughts on “Holacracy and Sociocracy

  1. Sharon Villines Post author

    It would be interesting to dig out a documented timeline. With the use of email, it would be possible. The memories and later adoption of those memories as fact is fascinating.

  2. Olivier Compagne

    Hi Sharon. This post is 3 years-old so I’d understand if you’re not really expecting a comment, but I’ll bite and answer your call to “hear from people currently involved with holacracy”. I work with HolacracyOne and although I’ve joined the company in 2012, I think I can help clarify a number of points you make.

    It’s true that sociocracy was one of the inspirations on the way to building holacracy, although many other approaches also helped shape what holacracy is today (such as agile software development and Getting Things Done (GTD), to name only two. More about holacracy formative influences: http://youtu.be/h2lFqeJZN0g ). And sociocracy was actually not a “major” influence compared to others; or more accurately, some concrete practices from sociocracy have been imported to holacracy (e.g., the voting system), but the underlying principles have not (e.g., in sociocracy, you have meetings to make operational decisions vs. in holacracy, operational decisions are made autocratically), while for other influences like agile and GTD, the actual underlying principles have been integrated at a deep level. It doesn’t diminish the contribution of sociocracy to holacracy, but the surface similarities shouldn’t distract from the deep difference in paradigm between the two.

    Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory was actually not a formative influence of Holacracy, although a lot of folks interested in Wilber’s work found a lot of resonance in Holacracy. I was one of them — Holacracy received good praise in the “integral community”, and that’s how I discovered it. But later on, when talking with Brian, I was surprised to hear that he had learned about Wilber’s work after Holacracy was birthed. It made the resonance between the two all the more interesting to me. That said, as much as I appreciate aspects of Wilber’s work, it’s a theory with little anchor in practice (at least for now..), which is completely antinomic to what Holacracy is: a system built from the ground-up, by iteration, from practice. And between us, I don’t want to speak for Brian, but having had several discussions with him about it, I would certainly not call him a “devotee” of Ken Wilber, quite far from it… :)

    As for Holacracy being closed and proprietorial, I’m not sure what are the criteria that define it. Yes there is a trademark on the name “Holacracy”, which serves to assure the public of a certain quality standard when they encounter the brand “Holacracy” (as opposed to sociocracy, for instance, for which anybody can claim expertise in). But the method itself is open: it is embodied in the Holacracy Constitution, which is open to the public: http://j.mp/WAk8aR , and you’re free to use it in your company without HolacracyOne’s permission.

    Hope that helps!

    1. Sharon Villines Post author

      Many ideas that formed sociocracy developed out of cybernetics, systems thinking, quaker organizations (which had a huge influence on business practices in America), etc., but holacracy developed directly out of sociocracy. A long email from Brian to the sociocracy@yahoogroups.com email list in 2005 explained how sociocracy was used in his company, an internal Booz Allen newsletter article dated 2006 explains and extolls the virtues of sociocracy, and an article from the WSJ published in 2007 also discusses how sociocracy contributed to the success of Ternary Software. None include holacracy or criticisms of sociocracy.

      Sociocracy forms the foundations of holacracy and I have yet to see any difference between them, except the considerable verbal and organizational skills Brian has in explaining them and forming a consulting practice around them. If Brian had continued his quest to get a patent on holacracy, there was a lawsuit ready to be filed on the part of sociocracy because the processes are the same.

      It is not true that operational decisions are made in meetings. Normally operational decisions are made autocratically by the operational leader _within policies set by the circle_. Staff meetings are only held when necessary and are led by the operations leader.

      Policies are set by the circle members in meetings in which each person participates as an equal. It is entirely possible for them to decide that operations will be led in a different way—with rotating leaders, for example. This depends entirely on the organization and its purposes.

      “The surface similarities shouldn’t distract from the deep difference in paradigm between the two.” I would still like to know what these are. Agile is influenced by the same principles that formed sociocracy. They are in the air, and not unique to Agile or holacracy. Sociocracy was the first to develop practical applications of these ideas.

      I would investigate the connection with Wilbur more closely. He may not be a devotee and Wilbur’s ideas are not operational by any means, but my only second hand knowledge of Brian’s development in this area was influenced by Ken Wilbur enthusiasms. If you read the early holacracy materials they contain mystical references in descriptions of what he now calls “purpose.”

      Some holacracy advocates have also said that sociocracy focuses on “individual needs” and not on the “purpose” of the organization. And that this causes a lack of focus and divisiveness because people forget why they are there. In holacracy in contrast, everyone can rise above their personal needs and devote themselves to the higher purpose. This is mystical psychology and a key element in Wilbur’s work.

      What Brian calls “purpose” which is the new buzz word (see a purpose driven life and recent works on motivation) is called “vision, mission, aim” in sociocracy. An individual also has a vision, mission, aim but they only exist within the organization’s vision, mission, aim. A person’s vision, mission, and aim are determined by their job description or role in the organization. No difference.

      There is reasonable confusion with “needs” because the International NVC organization was one of the first adopters and in the United States held international workshops in sociocracy. Sociocracy provided a governance structure that is very aligned with their values and their technique for defining personal needs and how the individual can fulfill them. The language of “needs” is theirs because it fits their aim, but it is not sociocracy’s. The aim of sociocracy is to help them structure and develop their organization in order to achieve their own aim.

      In the early days of holacracy, it was impossible to get information about what Brian was talking about without paying a lot of money. The posted materials were limited to brief paragraphs designed to entice you to attend seminars. His conversations, reported to me second hand, clearly discussed the need for a unique name that could be trademarked in order to make money with a licensing program. That required the perception that holacracy was something no one else had.

      I’m happy to hear that the Holacracy Constitution exists and is now open to the public: http://j.mp/WAk8aR. I’m also sure it has only recently been posted. I have been checking the site on and off since the beginning to try to sort out comments from people about sociocracy that were obtained from holacracy advocates. I still do not see any ideas that are not integral to or compatible with sociocracy.

      Recent reports from workshops by people in New Zealand also spoke to the “scientology” attitude of the trainers. The attendees preferred the attitudes and ambience of sociocracy but said the materials from holacracy were superior. I agree that the materials which are much more well-developed.

      Brian is obviously brilliant and has connected with incredibly good graphic designers and copy writers, though I suspect much of the writing is his. He has developed quality marketing and probably quality training. But the product is not as unique as he presents it and I’ve heard no distinction that correctly compares sociocracy and holacracy.

      This is very long but it’s my first opportunity to address this with a person who seems to have a more than rudimentary understanding of holacracy. I haven’t approached Brian for complexities having to do with other conflicting relationships. I welcome dialogue on the comparison. The “split” unfortunately means the efforts are divided instead of being mutually supportive.

      1. Olivier Compagne

        I think there might be a confusion as to what “coming from sociocracy” means.

        Let me step back for a second. I too am interested in understanding where things come from in order to better understand what they are now. No innovation is made in a vacuum; anybody who creates something new is standing on the shoulders of giants, as the saying goes. That’s true for Holacracy, as well as for sociocracy, for cars, planes… everything — and there’s nothing wrong about it IMO.

        During the incubation of the later-to-be-called-Holacracy method at Ternary Software, many other methods were borrowed, used, tested. Some were tossed out, some were partly kept or transformed and incorporated, then later transformed again or tossed out, etc. It’s true that sociocracy was one of these methods, just like others along the way. In that sense, Holacracy does “come from sociocracy” if it means that sociocracy was part of Holacracy’s formative history. Yes it was, nobody is denying it.

        However, if we look at what Holacracy is today (version 4.0 as of this writing), it is NOT accurate to say that sociocracy is a significant influence in the current design of Holacracy. The election process is still the same as in sociocracy, as well as some vocabulary — e.g. “circles”; that’s what I call surface similarities. Here is a quote from Brian from personal conversation with him where he clarifies this point (posted with permission):

        “If we’re talking about what “Holacracy” referred to back in 2006 (what we would now call v0.1, i.e. well before Constitution v1.0), then I would describe sociocracy as a much more significant/major influence than I would when comparing it to what “Holacracy” refers to today (i.e. v4.0 of Holacracy and the Constitution). Since the early days of v0.1, a *lot* has changed in Holacracy, and sociocracy’s contributions have been more weeded out (as limiting to Holacracy’s goals) than reinforced with each successive version, while others (e.g. GTD) have grown much more integrated and thus more substantial with each successive version, leading to my sense now that sociocracy’s impact in the current version of Holacracy is limited (not to deny the history of its impact in the past though, nor to overstate it, as a couple other sources deserve such credit as well I think)”

        If you want to compare what’s different about Holacracy, I invite you to consult the Holacracy constitution: http://holacracy.org/constitution . It’s admittedly not a fun read, but these are the *exact* rules of Holacracy, no more no less. Any question about the method itself is answered in this constitution, so any debate about its similarity with sociocracy should be easy to settle by pointing out the incriminated article in the constitution.

        (The constitution, by the way, is currently in version 4.0, and each version has been available online since version 2.0 in January 2011)

        Regarding the allegations related to “scientology”, “cult”, “mystic psychology”, I would recommend that you double-check what you hear from unnamed third party people before repeating it in public. I don’t know who those people are, nor what they said, so obviously there is little I can say to respond to those allegations, if only to ask for more substance. Secondly, I would again refer to the constitution; Holacracy is all in there, no more no less. Where do you see mystical stuff in it?

        Lastly, thank you for the compliments about HolacracyOne’s design and marketing efforts, I wish I could share this enthusiasm :) On the contrary, I personally think it’s currently one of the company’s weakness, due to focusing so much efforts on developing Holacracy itself and working on trainings and with clients. Although growing, HolacracyOne is still a young company, and time and resources are limited. So if you’re talking about several years ago, in the startup phase, I’m not surprised that publicly available documentation on Holacracy was limited, or that Brian and co would not be very available to give free presentations on the model. They made judgment calls on where to prioritize their time and energy, like any entrepreneur has to do, at the risk of not satisfying everybody. Today, HolacracyOne is still alive and growing, so they were not such bad choices in retrospect.

    2. jdaviescoates

      “Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory was actually not a formative influence of Holacracy, although a lot of folks interested in Wilber’s work found a lot of resonance in Holacracy. I was one of them — Holacracy received good praise in the “integral community”, and that’s how I discovered it. But later on, when talking with Brian, I was surprised to hear that he had learned about Wilber’s work after Holacracy was birthed. ”

      If that is what Brian told you, he was lying.

      A a 2006 interview he states:

      “We tried several alternative structures, some more effective than others, but all seriously lacking. Finally, we went searching and stumbled across a model called sociocracy, pioneered in its modern form by Gerard Endenburg. Sociocracy provided a large part of the answer we were searching for. We adopted it along with a few other key models I’ll discuss in a bit, and then over time we added several innovations and advances of our own. We needed a name for the new system in its entirety, and with the help of Ken Wilber, we came up with “holacracy”.”

      He goes on to highly recommend Ken Wilber’s books and claims to have “a solid
      understanding of holons and holarchies thanks to Ken Wilber’s work”.


      So even the name itself is directly attributed to Ken Wilber, by Brian. So, if he later made claims to you to have discovered Ken’s work after Holacracy was birthed, he was lying.

      1. Olivier Compagne

        That’s exactly correct jdaviescoates, the name was suggested by Ken Wilber when Brian & co consulted with the Integral Institute to implement the method. At the time, the method didn’t have a name yet, they were still calling it “Ternary’s Way”, based on the name of the company where it was developed.

        Frankly, there would be no problem with Wilber’s Integral Theory being a formative influence to Holacracy, if it was the case. But it’s not the case, however disappointing that may be for some people, so I’d rather tell the real story.

        So I’d rephrase your conclusion from “So even the name itself is directly attributed to Ken Wilber” to “So at least the name is attributed to Ken Wilber”. The method itself had been developed well before, and to be clear, it has kept evolving since (it’s in version 4.0 at the time of this writing) and is now considerably different from where it started.