Holacracy: Achieving Clarity and Productivity - Activate World

Holacracy: Achieving Clarity and Productivity


holacracy

Morgan Legge, Holacracy Bootstrapper and HR Champion, Convert.com

Morgan is the engine that keeps a 35 person, multilingual, 11 time zone, non-hierarchical team running smoothly.

Somehow.


During her time at Convert.com, she’s transitioned the team
from a traditional organizational structure to Holacracy, a new business model characterized by distributed authority without conventional management hierarchy. Morgan also has implemented a progressive employee perks program and built an in sync, accepting, and enthusiastic company culture in an async, fully remote, fast-paced, work environment.

With 20 years of experience in team and project management, and a lifetime of experience in “making challenging things work” — Morgan is an advocate for building remote teams that work together, work for the greater good, and are excited “show up” to work in the first place.

Morgan Legge has over 20 years of experience working in team and project management. At Convert.com, she has six roles including Holacracy Bootstrapper and HR Champion.  Convert.com is a Software as a Service (SaaS), 100% remote 35-person team distributed over 11 time zones. The company provides an A/B testing tool for high volume websites and is a leader in privacy-oriented software testing and conversion rate optimization.


Twitter | Website | Morgan Legge Blog

Holacracy: Achieving Clarity and Productivity

What happens when a company transitions from a traditional business model to one with distributed authority? At Covert.com this brought work to the forefront and allowed it to guide the organization’s structure and management process. Morgan Legge shares her experience as a Holacracy Bootstrapper and the benefits and challenges of a model that allows individuals and teams to self-manage while staying aligned with the organization’s purpose.

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Transcript

Holacracy: Achieving Clarity and Productivity

Morgan Legge, Holacracy Bootstrapper and HR Champion, Convert.com

Jon Mertz:          00:02          Welcome to the Activate World podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought. In season five, we’ll be exploring new business and organizational models. We’re going to start today with Holacracy. I’m excited to be joined by Morgan Legge, who is a Holacracy bootstrapper at Convert.com. Morgan, welcome to Activate World. Let’s get a little glimpse into your background.

Morgan Legge:       00:35          Great. Well, thanks so much, Jon. It’s a pleasure to be here. Actually, I don’t come from an organizational management background. I don’t come from a Holacracy background. It’s not a major that you take in university. I’m coming from a really robust 20 years experience in team and project management that spans three countries and four languages. The focus was residential construction industry. While that may not sound relevant, it actually gave me a very, very robust insight and hands on learning into practical problem solving, consent and consensus building, and process improvement, all of which handily prepared me for the many roles that I have at Convert.com, but specifically the one I started with, which is, actually it’s a role I still hold, is Holacracy bootstrapper.

Jon Mertz:          01:41          Tell us about your company, Convert.com.

Morgan Legge:       01:44          Sure. So, Convert.com is currently 30 members strong. We are a 100% remote team distributed over, I believe nine or 10 time zones. I’ve kind of lost count after about four or five to be honest. Our product is a SAS product. It’s an AB testing tool for high volume websites. It’s really a leader in privacy-oriented software testing, and is really a leader for agencies in conversion rate optimization.

Jon Mertz:          02:28          What can you tell us about Holacracy?

Morgan Legge:       02:29          Holacracy is really a model of distributed authority. There is actually quite a lot of structure. It’s just that the decision making is really in the hands of the role holder. So, we have a very clear and formal structure, but there’s no people hierarchy, so it makes for a very interesting transition, which I’m sure we’ll touch on a lot in this conversation, but really what it does is it allows the work to be front and center. So, this system of organization is self-steering. It’s self-adapting. The work guiding what the structure looks like, and how the company is managed. It means that we are making decisions about work and not about people. So, it really breaks open a lot of the old paradigms and ways of thinking about work.

Jon Mertz:          03:31          I know that in more traditional models, the work can sometimes get lost in the politics of the organization. Do you avoid some of that with Holacracy?

Morgan Legge:       03:39          Yeah, most of it. Definitely. The thing I want to clarify is that for Holacracy, we are not consensus building. The consent is there when the role is created. Those don’t get created unilaterally. They often come out of a very robust discussion that happens in a governance meeting, so those roles are born from something real. But then what that means is once you energize it, you have the ability to make decisions based within the domains you control, your accountabilities and your purpose. So, I actually don’t need to … So, for example, as I also hold the role of HR champion, when I decided to change our hiring process to adapt it to look for people who were more aligned with Holacracy and the qualities that would be needed to flourish, really excel within that framework, I can change that hiring process unilaterally. That was one of my domains and my accountabilities, so I didn’t have to ask for permission to do that.

Morgan Legge:       04:53          I guess to the outside world, our CEO asks questions. Certainly people would ask questions for clarification or clarity, and maybe they had some reticence towards some of the things that I was doing, but they didn’t actually have any power to roadblock me or tell me no. It was my decision to move forward. I think that that’s a really powerful tool to have to execute your role. It gives you a lot of flexibility. It also gives you a lot of responsibility, so you really need to be honest and transparent about not just the successes, but also the failures are yours too.

Jon Mertz:          05:33          Clarity seems to be a key element of Holacracy. Is that an accurate assessment?

Morgan Legge:       05:38          Yeah, I think that’s a very accurate assessment. I think that the thing that I think is really most interesting for new people when they come in to onboard within our framework is when they attend Holacracy meetings, so for example, in a governance meeting, there’s a very specific way in which those meetings are run. We have a clarifying questions round. We have a reaction round. You give a reaction. There’s no cross talk. There’s no back and forth. In the first section, I’m clarifying questions. You’re not giving opinions. You’re not discussing. You’re not giving reactions. Really clarifying questions. There’s an amendments round where the person making the initial proposal can make an amendment to better address the proposal. We have an objections round so that people holding roles can object to something, so that it’s noted.

Morgan Legge:       06:44          But really the question that you ask at the end of that whole process is do you see any reason why adopting this proposal causes harm? So, does it move us backward as an organization? Take yourself out of that. And generally speaking, 99% of the time the reason is no, I don’t see any harm in this. I may not agree with it, but I don’t see any harm. You could see how when you have members who are learning this whole structure and really putting in the work to understand Holacracy and how it runs and how it can help you run your organization, this is very equalizing. It then puts a CTO or a CEO with the same meeting time as someone who’s a junior developer or someone in marketing. We’re all the same when we go to that meeting.

Morgan Legge:       07:43          I think that that really frees up to focus on well, what are we trying to move forward in? What are our goals? Really, like I said in the beginning, talking about the work. That’s what it is. We have our goals. How are we going to meet them? Let’s take the rest of the dynamics out of it. It’s not to say that we don’t have fun and we don’t laugh and we don’t make mistakes and everything, but it’s certainly a much more liberating process than any I have been in.

Jon Mertz:          08:17          I’ve read that tension plays a role in those meetings. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Morgan Legge:       08:24          Sure, because the tension is actually has a clear definition, and that is it’s a gap between your current reality and the potential. So, the potential of your purpose. The purpose is almost something perfect that you can never attain. So, you’re always reaching towards making something better. So, this gap, if you’re really sensing, if you’re really fulfilling your purpose of your role, you’re always finding tensions. It could be something very small. It could be like my role needs regular updates on this metric. I need to have clarity and transparency into this metric. Attention could be I keep missing messages on hiring, or something like this, or the process. There’s something missing from the process. Or freelancers don’t feel that they are getting adequate notice when their contracts are being renewed, so then we had to go in and re-look at the process of how that’s happening.

Morgan Legge:       09:34          So, tension is just a gap. And it’s interesting because when you go to a tactical meeting, facilitators, the first thing they ask you when you get to the tension processing, the real meat of the meeting, is they ask you what do you need? What do you need to solve this issue? Oh, I need X. Okay, great. Let’s find out who owns that role, who has the accountability for that, or if there’s a domain, and let’s do it. And that’s it.

Jon Mertz:          10:08          As I understand it, Convert.com didn’t have Holacracy in place when the company first started. Why was the switch made away from a more traditional model?

Morgan Legge:       10:17          It’s interesting. When I was hired, I had no idea what a Holacracy was. It’s a great story how we came to Holacracy. It’s actually in our blog. It’s aptly titled I Want to Fire Myself. Our CEO, who is a recovering micro manager, he had really had a hard time with being the bottleneck for a lot of processes that were necessary to scale a business. You know, approvals for software, approvals to have something go live. As a small company, which customer gets reimbursed and how. These kinds of things that, these can be delegated to somebody. This can clearly be the responsibility of somebody. And understanding that he and his co-founder knew that they wanted to scale the business, and they couldn’t do it with the current system in place. So, that’s how this was born. He had heard about Holacracy. Had watched Brian Robertson’s TED talk, and then had dived into it a bit deeper. Then had contacted me, and we had a 20-minute cal. He said, “I’m interested in implementing this at Convert.com. Here’s a bunch of reading. Let’s talk in a week and see if you’re interested.” That’s how that conversation started.

Morgan Legge:       12:05          I read the documents. I watched the video. I love a challenge and I like to solve problems. So I was like, “Okay. How can this be done?” I said yes. Then I started five, 10 hours a week. That’s where the name of bootstrapper came in. I wasn’t a coach. I didn’t have formal training. I’m not an organizational person. I don’t have a background in any of that. I’m organized, yes, but I certainly don’t have that background. That’s how it was born. Learning and doing and failing and then doing it all over again, and understanding and seeing that pretty clearly very early on that Convert.com was an environment that I could fail freely, and not be punished for that, and use it as a tool for learning was a very, very powerful experience.

Jon Mertz:          13:20          As you rolled out the Holacracy model at Convert.com, what’s been the reaction of team members both existing and new?

Morgan Legge:       13:27          So, the new ones are super excited. It’s definitely a way that I use as HR champion to brand and promote us when we’re hiring. We don’t expect someone to have background in Holacracy or anything like that, but we’re definitely hiring for those traits, which as a side note, would be entrepreneurial traits and people with high emotional intelligence. But then you’re faced with the reality that implementing this organizational structure requires a lot of work.

First of all, there’s the investment of time. Then it’s secondly, it sounds like a great idea, but then maybe actually once you scratch the surface, people are not problem solvers or they don’t benefit from criticism or they are not actually self-starters, or they’re not as goal-oriented and independent as you originally thought, because when you get down to that structure of having accountabilities in purpose and domains, it becomes clear who is doing what and how they’re doing it, which is buried in a traditional structure. People are told what to do, and maybe in a better traditional structure they’re given some latitude, but they’re not so driven by their own motivation as treating the company as their own.

Morgan Legge:       15:09          So, yeah we lost some people. We definitely hired people that weren’t a good fit. I think that that journey was really informative, and it helped us to really change the hiring process along the way and really refine and redefine what we look for.

Jon Mertz:          15:32          Tell us about some of the benefits that you at Convert.com have experienced through Holacracy and the challenges that remain as you continue to grow as an organization.

Morgan Legge:       15:41          I work 35 to 45 hours a week depending on the week, but I feel like I’m able to, I know that I’m able to accomplish what I previously would take me 60 hours of work because the clarity is there and you don’t waste the time with the details of hand holding and consensus building and ego stroking, and all these kinds of personal dynamics that get endeared into a regular traditional hierarchy. So, I feel that it’s way more … It’s just so much more productive. I think that the challenge moving forward is really just we always want to be improving. So it’s really easy to sit on your laurels and think about “oh we’ve come this far, we’ve done all this,” but Holacracy for us at least is a journey, and we’re not there yet. We’re constantly improving. We’re always trying to find a better way to do what we’re doing in terms of running meetings, in terms of upping our … for our facilitators. Our facilitators getting better in running meetings, in just people understanding the vehicles to resolve tensions.

Morgan Legge:       17:16          I’m looking forward to the next six months and the next year to see how much more we can adapt and adopt. We’re all people. That’s part of what makes it a strength, but we still need to realize that we all come to work and this type of organization with our own biases, our own educational background, cultural background, and it’s not always easy to problem solve and to work on building the emotional side better because that is always going to move the organization forward as well.

Jon Mertz:          18:03          Do you find that team members are more engaged with this model versus more traditional ones?

Morgan Legge:       18:08          I think that the engagement for the work is very high. In this format, it becomes very evident if you’re not engaged with your role or producing output. It’s incredibly obvious. So, when I think about engagement in a purely remote team, I am looking at engagement for things that we do specific to us. So, we do buddy calls. We do a lot of cultural engagement around our communication channels. We use Slack, for example. So, we also make it really clear that we don’t have an expectation that in your work week you’re 100% productive. That’s a lie. We all know that, as employers, no one is 100% productive. In fact, when I do onboarding, I specifically state that we think, we have a guess that your productivity is somewhere around 65% to 70%. We don’t expect you to be a robot.

Morgan Legge:       19:25          We have these Slack channels which are open to all our members, for them to really share about what they’re comfortable with in terms of what they do, where they went for lunch, how they engage with asking questions. We have an open channel for people to ask questions of anyone on the team if they’re looking for help or something interesting they read. We have a win and miseries meeting we hold once a week where people can commiserate on successes. We have a humble brag channel. We have a tools channel where people can share a unique tool that they came across. Then we also have availability and a water cooler channel.

Morgan Legge:       20:16          The reason I bring all these up is I see engagement there very, very high. We have a fairly high engagement in buddy calls as well, which is paid time. So, in terms of … I think that having as a remote team, and we can definitely have a second conversation about culture and culture building, but I think that the building that culture and really investing in it, and really making it shouting and showing that being engaged in what seems like just fun is actually creating connections and transparency about how people work. So, if you were in an office, you would talk to someone at the coffee machine about what you did on the weekend or that you took your dog to the vet. We do the same thing. I think that that also, that has really helped us be successful in transitioning to this model of Holacracy.

Morgan Legge:       21:24          If you don’t have that cultural component and that engagement that you’re talking, or that I see is cultural engagement, I think that you set yourself up for failure in a lot of ways. I think that you have to have both to make it really successful.

Jon Mertz:          21:44          To wrap up, why should an entrepreneur or leader of an existing business consider Holacracy?

Morgan Legge:       21:49          I think it’s excellent for scaling your business. I think it’s excellent for making your company about the work, and bringing clarity to the process of whatever you’re creating. I think that these are incredibly important. If you’re a really small organization, I think it’s easy to think that someone can wear all these hats and it’s going to be fine. But as business leaders, we know that you get to a point where that’s not possible. So, this really gives you the tools and the structure to be able to scale rapidly. I think that as businesses, that’s a great thing. I mean, you don’t have to be the next multinational billion dollar company, but certainly realizing your dream and fulfilling your goals and ambitions is something that we all want to do as entrepreneurs, and Holacracy gives you the tools to do that. The clear structure and the lack of people hierarchy really frees up you and your company to really focus on what your financial goals are, what your product goals are. And the flip side to that, of course, is that you really have to hire properly.

Morgan Legge:       23:24          This system does not work if you’re not hiring the right people. I think that that’s the main thing. It’s not an elixir that’s going to solve your problems. If you’re a micro manager, you’re always going be a micro manager until you change that mindset. If you’re hiring the wrong people you’re just going to end up with a different set of problems. But if you’re really interested in growing and looking into this model, I really think that addressing how one hires is super important, and then really thinking about what that work is and being free as a CEO or as a CTO, or maybe you’re a marketer and you have a business. It gives you the ability to do what you’re good at, and leave the rest to people who probably know better.

Jon Mertz:          24:21          Well Morgan, thank you so much. You’ve been a delight to talk to, and I’ve learned a lot about Holacracy through this conversation. I’m sure our listeners have as well.

Morgan Legge:       24:29          Thank you.

Jon Mertz:          24:37          Activators, let’s continue the conversation in our Activate World LinkedIn group. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and perspectives.

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Activate World is a team endeavor. Special thanks to Kayla Waldstein and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World, I’m Jon Mertz.

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