Uncharted Waters

Jan 15 2014   12:55PM GMT

Is holacracy the third coming of Agile?

Justin Rohrman Justin Rohrman Profile: Justin Rohrman

It looks like Zappos is joined the company wide reorganization bandwagon, but this time it has a new name; holacracy. This new change will mean fewer managers, fewer or no job titles, and small empowered groups working together to solve problems. Gone are the days of working through a red tape to get permission to do work.

When reading about this, I can’t help but think that this is completely in the spirit of the agile manifesto. In the agile world, everyone is a developer. Everyone focuses on the product and what actions can be taken to ship software and ship it faster.

Fred George refers to this phenomenon as programmer anarchy.

Back in the day, I worked at an early stage start up in a previous life that had a fair bit of success with this. We were building a software product, trying to get to market as fast as humanly possible to see if the customer would like it. If the liked it, great! If they didn’t, we would do the same thing but different and see if they liked the new different. Failure was quick and changing directions was no big deal.

Slowly, this little infant of a software project turned into and adolescent. The project had grown quite a bit, the team had grown a little bit, and most importantly we had paying customers. Paying customers that don’t like failing software. Releasing multiple times a day became dissatisfying for customers that like some amount of stability.

We did have managers, titles, and team members self-identified with certain parts of product development that they enjoyed or felt comfortable with.

As far as I can tell the mistakes that lead us to be not holocratic (and not very agile) were having paying customers, and a product that eventually became monolithic. One of those seems to be negotiable though. I mean, Facebook and Google seem to do just fine with monolithic software.

Many times, this structure can lead to customers being used to vet new ideas. Facebook doesn’t exactly have an untarnished record as far as releasing quality software goes. I’m sure you see the complaints and reports of weird behaviors in your feed each time they push a noticeable update. The theme for holacracy seems to be mediocre software as fast as possible, then something different is customers complain loud enough.

I wonder how this will work out for Zappos.

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