This blog explores alternative organization designs such as holarchies and holacracies that promise new types of organizations – that are perhaps more aligned to their contexts, innovative to the boot, and that create value for their stakeholders. My experience with Turn The Bus has offered visceral encounters that enrich my understanding of the theory and the practice of each model.
It was around two years ago, when Bratati Ghosh – the founder of Turn The Bus, fished me out, and quite creatively too, using a Linked-in tool known as Octopus, and consequently got me onboarded to Turn The Bus. Many others within the organization today would echo and resonate with this experience. Bratati has been intensely passionate and dynamic in recruiting a fantastic team, having founded two non-profit entities –
- Turn The Bus (TTB) which is a US nonprofit organization focused on delivering digital educational and livelihood solutions to underserved communities with a clear mission – reduce income inequality by reducing educational inequality with the help of smartphones.
- Turn The Bus India Foundation (TTBIF) which was set up in India in November 2021 as a section 8 company and focused on design and execution of several initiatives in India.
Given that Bratati has diligently persevered with a large and very diverse group of professionals who have totally bought into her dream of using ‘EdTech‘ to solve a complex and a grand challenge of ‘social inequity’ – choices around the organization design were critical – most of us were working across continents. Some of the choices made by her and us in TTB are quite unique as we pieced together a Turn The Bus Design – aspects of organization design that have been very exciting for me personally.
In my first few conversations with Bratati, the initial picture of the system in my mind, was that of an interactive array of voluntary networks – a complex series of interlacing systems embedded in a core philosophy of ‘giving’. It was exciting to see voluntary teams and networks across USA and India converge on projects, hackathons, and ideation meets to create an App amongst other offerings.
Turn The Bus has had hundreds of active volunteers across its network clusters and gigs – from funding to technology & app creation to content creation to partnering execution … and has today more than 21,000 users using its offerings in a span of 2 years.
Over these 24 months, Turn The Bus has evolved as an organization – almost a ‘holarchy’ in making – a brilliant testimony to an alternative design to traditional hierarchies embedded in the industrial mindset that beleaguer many other organizations. This is perhaps the beginning of the journey for many of us in TTB, but this beginning has also seeded a different way of organizing and executing its mandate.
The Foundation of Self Organizing Networks – Holarchy and Holacracy
“Do seeds contain trees? Or do trees contain seeds?”
Let me begin by defining a ‘holon’. A holon is simultaneously a whole (with its own self-assertion, identity, and agency) and a part (integrated in a larger whole).
It was Arthur Koestler, who proposed the term ‘Holon’ in his work – “The Ghost in a Machine” to describe natural organisms that are semi-autonomous ‘parts’ linked in a ‘holarchy’ to form a ‘whole’. For those who are curious about the title of the work, Koestler posited that the machine of life and universe is ever evolving to more complex states as if a ghost was operating the machine.
Koestler wanted to create a model that would integrate the mechanistic perspectives of scientific thinking with holistic and humanistic perspectives. He envisioned a human / social system that could be viewed as a holarchy – where neither the individuality nor the macro-level of the collective, are sacrificed and where both these lens are co-held – leading to evolution.
Ken Wilber adopted and popularized the term ‘holon’ and ‘holarchy’. In his principle or doctrine of the fundamental and the significant, he inverts the hierarchy – stating that if a given holon ceases to exist, then all holons, this holon is a part of, would cease to exist. Readers familiar to Wilber would remember the example of the hydrogen atom and the ant. The atom is more fundamental than an ant, but an ant is more significant than the atom.
Ashok Malhotra uses the holon as a key axiom for building the EUM construct, exploring multiple identities within both an individual as well as an organization as a living system. The EUM framework for organizations speaks of a shift from clockwork hierarchies to collaborative networks as an evolutionary leap. This blog chooses to explore several forms of such Networks – Holarchies, Gigs, and Holacracies.
Is Turn The Bus a holarchy?
Perspectives from Organization Design & Systems Thinking
Systems Thinking classifies holarchies as ‘SOHO’ – self-organizing holarchic open systems, and stresses on its unique features – (i) evolving systems, (ii) self-organizing, (iii) dissipative structure, (iv) open-ended, and (v) connected to other holons. My journey within Turn The Bus accentuated my understanding of some of these core axioms:
- The notion of the Social Holon
In organization systems, a social holon becomes an interesting unit of analysis. Classically defined as a collective of individuals (holons), it is the ‘we-ness’ within that energizes the collective.
Initially a very large majority of us in Turn The Bus, defined our we-ness from (a) being an alumnus of IIT Kanpur, and / or (b) an alumnus from IIM Ahmedabad, and / or (c) A need to give back to the society.
However, this ‘we-ness’ has evolved over time from mere membership of elite institutions towards creatively straddling and celebrating a diversity of skills, role-taking, and personal ideology. Just yesterday, we were co-opting a brilliant technocrat into TTB even though some of us saw his profile as that of a ‘nationalist’. The nature of ‘we-ness’ could not be less monolithic.
The fears of becoming a ‘clannish cult’ are real if the ‘we-ness’ as a construct is not defined. We-ness may also lead to dysfunctional processes of Othering. One of the ways to counter a clannish ‘We-ness’ is an interesting process titled as ‘nexus agency’, where the social holon is imbued with a simultaneous experience of independent individual action choices and collective ‘we-ness’.
Nexus Agency sounds ominous but is best described by a flock of geese – where each goose is a holon, but the flock becomes a social holon. The lead goose may keep changing but the flock follows the lead goose. Throughout the last two years, I have been witnessing how all of us through spurts and lulls have been the geese in the flock. Bratati’s vision has been a signpost, but it has been amazing to hear individuals speak of intense action and then passing the baton to the next. The flock has moved but ‘nexus agency’ has been intriguing.
This simultaneity of individual action choices and collective ‘we-ness’ is key and gets resolved perhaps only through continual dialogue and expression of differences and ideological stances, without submitting to one or the other.
- SLACK & Holarchies
Technology influences structures and organization design, and I was amazed at the potential of creating holarchies at TTB. One of the platforms that allow for asynchronous work that I am beginning to appreciate is SLACK and how the various threads of dialogue and tasks form an array of networks.
With Turn The Bus, I have found Slack as an excellent platform to co-hold holons, and yet maintain a hierarchy of holons (holarchy) offering transparency, interdependency, and negotiability.
Every morning, I scroll the threads that I am a part of, making notes on what others have offered, and then determining my responses. Slack with its features and its channels offers a veritable wire-frame for holons to take shape and too engage with each other.
- Self-Organizing Holons
While we are not there as yet, Turn The Bus is evolving into a core circle of self-organizing holons – each is owning a dream as well as a value adding throughput. The dream brings in people psychologically, and the throughput sets the boundaries in terms of competencies, knowledge, and experience.
So while Bratati remains at the core of several holons, Murali leads the entrepreneurial solutions, attracting significant partners across US and India on a wide array of opportunities from conventional agrarian models of poultry and pisciculture to manufacturing solar solutions. Java leads the learning holon, networking with hundreds of teachers, experts, and partnering organizations that are co-creating content – her holonic networks encompass volunteers, paid professionals and retired teachers. Again the holon is energized though a dream as well as competencies. Venu and Vikram have been anchoring the tech-enablement and the App for Turn The Bus.
Each Holon crafts its own mission and its own growth paths – these holons remain open and people like me move in and out of various such dialogue forums. Each of the holon also talks to the other, and we have refrained from creating hierarchical layers – though now and then, we do refer to the senior leadership group / holon. There is a channel in Slack titled this as well – but there is no reportage to this holon, there are no dotted lines or clear lines of authority etc.
- The Emerging Holarchy within Turn The Bus and the larger ecology – Mirroring our Partner
It is said that in most ecologies, organizations also mimic the others – and this process is akin to a kind of mirroring – that builds inter-organizational connects. For example, Lean manufacturing flourished in the keiretsu model of ecology, where vendors became partners not just imitating lean systems within Toyota but also subscribing to the lean philosophy as an ideology.
Turn The Bus seems to have mirrored, and unconsciously perhaps, the design of our largest and most significant partner – JEEViKA Biihar. Jeevika is a complex ecology of multiple organizations that have been galvanized by 12 million women in Bihar, and which is spearheading transformation in Bihar.
All of us at TTB take immense pride in our association with JEEViKA Bihar, and mirror Jeevika on several fronts – (a) voluntary networks at TTB mirror the 1 million plus SHGs in Bihar, (b) TTB offering designs including community learning, and (c) a belief that free and efficient markets, new and emerging technologies, can be integrated with the social and psychological empowerment of disenfranchised women to create growth.
Holarchy and Holacracy
In self organizing systems, Holacracy has been termed as a method of decentralized management and organizational governance, which claims to distribute authority and decision-making through a Holarchy of self-organizing teams rather than being vested in a management hierarchy. Holacracy has been adopted by for-profit and non-profit organizations in several countries
As per Wikipedia – The Holacracy system was developed at Ternary Software, in Exton, Pennsylvania. Ternary founder, Brian Robertson, distilled the company’s best practices into an organizational system that became known as Holacracy in 2007. Robertson later developed the “Holacracy Constitution“, which lays out the core principles and practices of the system. In 2011, he released a Manifesto 16 of Holacracy which was later developed in June 2015, as the book Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World, that details and explains his practices.
The Holacracy Constitution was adopted by several US companies including Zappos – the largest organization to have experimented with it.
In July-August 2016 edition of Harvard Business Review, Bernstein and others presented their research on holacracies. Titled as ‘Beyond the Holacracy Hype’, the researchers look at both the claims and the promise of this organization design. I am appending their published summary of the research:
Most observers who have written about holacracy and other forms of self-management take extreme positions, either celebrating these “bossless,” “flat” work environments for fostering flexibility and engagement or denouncing them as naive experiments that ignore how things really get done. To gain a more accurate, balanced perspective, the authors—drawing on examples from Zappos, Morning Star, and other companies—examine why these structures have evolved and how they operate, both in the trenches and at the level of enterprise strategy and policy.
Self-organization models typically share three characteristics:
- Teams are the structure. Within them, individual “roles” are collectively defined and assigned to accomplish the work.
- Teams design and govern themselves, while nested within a larger structure.
- Leadership is contextual. It’s distributed among roles, not individuals, and responsibilities shift according to fit and as the work changes.
Adopting self-management wholesale—using it to determine what should be done, who should do it, and how people will be rewarded across an entire enterprise—is hard, uncertain work, and the authors argue that in many environments it won’t pay off. But their research and experience also suggest that elements of self-organization can be valuable tools for companies of all kinds, and they look at circumstances where it makes more sense to blend the new approaches with traditional models.
The authors take pains to delineate how holacracies cannot survive in large complex organizations and need to be integrated with traditional structures. If you have been intrigued by this blog, please do read up this article at https://hbr.org/2016/07/beyond-the-holacracy-hype
Turn The Bus may not subscribe to the holacracy constitution, but some of the core principles including a shared ideology of living and of work become critical for the holacracy to emerge. I do hope to be in a position to write about the TTB way to holacracy.
The GIG versus the Holarchy
The gig networks and the gig economy has been talked about for the past many years. Platforms allow for the gigs to be vibrant – offering buyers and sellers of competencies and knowledge to contract short term and focused assignments.
The clear difference between a gig structure and a holarchy is the over-focus on the tangible aspect of work in a Gig – where the nature of work is more transactional, and a holarchy that is equally open, is set within the crucible of shared values and mission.
Even in the hackathons that led to creation and improvement of the Turn The Bus App, and where we could be labelled as a Gig – each volunteering engineer from Microsoft or Amazon came into the TTB space – aligned to its mission of ‘giving back’.
The 20th century organization grew and ruled the world through its mechanistic clockwork structure that allowed for both scaling and for control.
While many thinkers have spoken of the 21st century organization and how it has to evolve in its design principles, what is encouraging that organizations world over are experimenting with new designs.
In 2013, Raghu and I had written a book on organization design, positing tensegrity structures as the basis for viability and sustainability (Organization Development and Alignment – The Tensegrity Mandala Framework), we had talked about a complex holacracy that integrates multiple stakeholders including communities, technology and investors.
What is exciting that within the Network Construct used by Ashok Malhotra in his EUM framework, there is a huge space for multiple design configurations to evolve.
Turn The Bus, I know, would be one such experiment that would offer a treasure trove of narratives and concepts to social entrepreneurs, traditional entrepreneurs, and new firms founded the world over.