The auto pilot of the traditional management theories

de automatische piloot van het klassieke managementdenken

Many organisations depart from the rational planning & control paradigm and the metaphor of the organisation as a (military) machine. This perspective assumes a world that can be planned for and can be predicted in which the organisation must function as a well oiled machine. This is often being enforced by strong leadership and top-down steering. This paradigm is very useful in stable environments, where the playing field is known and the future to a large extent predictable – the industrial era. In the current post-industrial era, that perspective is no longer sufficient because of the ever increasing level of complexity, transparency, interconnectedness, globalisation, economic instability, climate change challenges and the pressure on companies to have a positive impact in the world. This forces organisations to focus more on learning and adaptability rather than on predicting and planning & control

Besides the strategic importance and the chances of survival of an organisation, also from the perspective of the people working in an organisation, the traditional way of organisaing does not match with the requirements of the current times. We will have to find a new and more purposeful / attention-full way of organising.

Goedhart and Van der Steen also write about this: In many organisations, but also in science, there is still a great deal of trust in rationality, materialism and in a society that can be engineered. They also notice a shift of perspectives. In the science this started with Planck’s quantum theory (“what you measure is being influenced by the measurement”). This questions the Descartian vision of an objectively measurable and predictable reality. Also Einsteins relativity theory and Lorenz’ chaostheory show that we cannot (always) understand the world through linear cause-effect logic. They perceive a similar trend in organisational theory: It appears that after the machine metaphor of rationality and predicatability there is now a growing interest for the evolving and chaotic perspective. More and more organisations are searching for processes of self organisation, self management and an appreciative mindset.

This requires another approach to leadership and management than we are used to in the traditional management theories, which builds on a dependency on powerful leaders. It requires a different perspective on leadership which aimes to make / let all employees be as strong as they can be. In this situation, not all decision making is with a central leader, so leadership can be freed up for other roles, e.g. paying attention to needs in and outside the organisation and how the organisation can respond to those needs. This has implications for the ego of more traditionally oriented leaders: leaders and managers will no longer build their identity and added value on decision making powers, but on guidance and searching. It is clear that this will not happen automatically – specifically not, since ego’s are at stake. That is why it is important to work on organisational awareness and language. It is important that an organisational discussion is started on these topics, for instance in management- and leadership development programs.


Frederic Laloux, 2016, Reinventing organizations, Lannoo Publishers

Brian Robertson, 2015, Holacracy, Henry Holt & Co.​

Goedhart, Van der Steen, 2016, Proceskunde – en pleidooi voor werken met aandacht, Kessels en Smit The Learning Company

Holacracy – Robertson

The concept of Holacracy (Robertson) is based on the assumption that the top-down and predict & control paradigm no longer suffices. Holacracy is a way of organising in which the organisation continuously adjusts itself. Holacracy consists of the following elements:

1. clear rules of the game which redistribute the decision making powers and authorities and empower those who are connected with the daily reality of the organisation on the ground
2. a new structure with clear roles and mandates
3. a decision making process for continuously updatint these roles and mandates (governance meetings) – also see the post about Governance in Holacracy.
4. a specific set of meetings to safeguard the connectedness between the organisational entities and to get things done. (operational / tactical meetings) – also see the post about Governance in Holacracy.

ad 1. Holacracy builds on the process and not on personal leadership and this makes the organisation less dependent on one or more strong leaders which is typical for many organisations. This ilso creates a more equal dynamic than the parent – child relationship which characterises the dynamics between different (management) layers in many organisations. The redistribution of power and decision making authorities is done in such a way that everyone’s role, responsibilities and mandates are clear and there is no overlap between roles. Each role has a distict and confined responsibility about which only that particular role can make decisions. In Holacracy there are no traditional managers who (can) prescribe how certain tasks need to be performed. Each role has clear responsibilities and each role can to take decisions autonomously within the boundaries of that responsibility. Obviously, each role can ask for help, input or advice from others.

ad 2. The traditional organisational structure in Holacracy is replaced by circles. Traditional job descriptions are replaced by roles. Circles can exist next to each other or can be part of a larger circle. The overarching circle which spans the whole organisation is called the anchor circle. People can fulfill multiple roles and they can be part of multiple circles. Each circle has – next to the roles that are necessary to deliver the primary process of that circle – a number of specifically designed roles: lead link role, facilitator, secretary, representative link role. the lead link is being appointed by the lead of the super circle – the larger circle of which the particular circle is a part. The lead link monitors objective and strategy of the circle and assignes roles to people. the representative link role is being elected by people who are part of the circle. The rep link represents the circle’s perspective in the super circle, or overarching circle and ensures – through governance meetings – that the overarching circle creates the right conditions for the proper functioning of the circle.

Also the facilitator role and the secratary role are elected by the people in the circle. The facilitator chairs the operational and governance meetings of the circle according to a specified protocol and the secretary provides transparent reporting of the agreements made so these can be accessed by all at all times.


Brian Robertson, 2015, Holacracy, Henry Holt & Co.​

Governance | Holacracy – Robertson

In Holacracy  (Robertson) there is a clear governance process for keeping roles up-to-date: on regular intervals (e.g. every two weeks), each organisational entity (in Holacracy these are called “circles”) will hold a governance meeting to detail and sharpen the relationships between the roles. This is done in a strictly defined procedure which eliminates interference from outside people’s own roles and responsibilities – the Integrative Decision Making process. This process is aimed at solving tenstions that are perceived by a specific role. The person experiencing a tension is expected to come up with a proposal how to solve this. This proposal will be accepted unless there are valid objections that are being brought to the table. An objection is only valid if:

a. the objective / purpose of the circle is jeopardised if the objection is not properly dealt with, and
b. the objection will be materialised by accepting the proposal (i.e. the objection is currently not existing; it needs to be a result of the proposal to be valid), and
c. the objection is backed up with existing evidence / information or – in case the objection is a prediction, there are sufficient opportunities for timely adjusting, should the proposal be accepted, and
d. the proposal limits the role / mandate of the person who is submitting the objection.

In case there are valid objections (this conversation will be guided by the facilitator role), a new proposal will have to be deveoped, which addresses both the original tension as well as the objection. The new proposal will be tested to see whether there are new objections according to the criteria stated above.

The power of this procedure for adjusting the governance is that it is based on step-by-step improvements, based on actual tensions that people experience in their role. This prevents the paralising effect of approaches that seek to solve all problems in one effort. The disadvantage of such approaches is that these usually result in very conceptual proposals that are not very much linked to actual day-to-day problems.

Tactical meetings (about the operation / day-to-day affairs) are also guided by a strict protocol. The agenda of such a meeting is built around issues and the person / role submitting the issue needs to state clearly what they need in order to be able to proceed. In case this leads to adjusting existing roles, the specific issue will be referred to a governance meeting to be processed according to the Integrative Decision Making process.

The power of Holacracy is the ongoing effort to reflect on a transparent adjustment of relations between roles and the step-by-step improvement aimed at solving actual tensions that people experience in their roles. Clear roles and mandates are based on the assumption that a person in a particular role is assumed to be able to make decisions about what is needed in that part of the organisation. Transparent governence eliminates the need for organisational politics. Strategy in Holacracy sets a direction (priorities) without losing itself in making predictions. Organisations who work with Holacracy turn out to have less and more effective meetings.

An organisation that organises the governance in such a way, is continuously adjusting itself based on internal tensions, but also based on tenstions that the responsible persons feel in the outside world. I think this way of gradually discovering and developing solutions for these tensions is an elegant and more concrete translation of Laloux’ “being sensitive and responsive and listening to where the organisation naturally wants to go”.


Brian Robertson, 2015, Holacracy, Henry Holt & Co.​

Laloux: evolutionary purpose

Evolutief doel: een organisatie en haar strategie ontwikkelen zich net als de evolutie

One of the underlying principles in Laloux’ research is the “evolutionary purpose”: a purpose that the organisation naturally wants to pursue, instead of trying to predict the future. If we no longer start from te planning & control paradigm and if we see the organisation as a living organism, this also has implications for the roles of the people and the leaders in the organisation. Instead of predicting and planning their role shifts towards listening to and being sensitive to what the organisation naturally wants and subsequently helping the organisation to achieve that. This means being sensitive and responsive. An example of this is the Agile method. This perspective also has implications for strategy documents; in their existing form they are no longer necessary. Instead of documenting the proposed reaction to a predictable future, the organisation connects with other stakeholders to experiment in order to achieve new solutions for complex questions. Successful experiments can then be scaled up to other parts or even the whole organisation. This means an explicit and active effort to let go of existing perspectives and to explore the advantages of other (also external) perspectives. Laloux mentions some examples: Theory U (Otto Scharmer), Appreciative Inquiry, Open Space, Future Search en World Cafe.

As a professional I have been educated in the more traditional management theories and I have worked in organisations in which that perspective dominated. Although I have also studied and worked with the post-industrial or post-modern look at organisations and organising, Laloux’ way of describing his vision of an organisation as a living organism clashes with that other perspective. I strongly feel that the traditional way of organising no longer suffices, I also feel resistance towards the idea of “listening and being sensitive to what the organisation naturally wants”. Firstly, I don’t believe in an organisation as an entity with a free will (the post-modern thinkers call this reification: assigning human qualities to things and concepts). Secondly, I also have to get used to his use of language and words: the organisation as a mystical and spiritual higer power that reveals its secrets. Laloux may be right. The fact that I have trouble accepting that type of language also says a lot about the power and domincance of the traditional management theories. I do like the idea of discovering: by exploring new directions and allowing new perspectives, together with other stakeholders in and outside the organisation – new ways of working and new solutions for complex questions emerge.


Frederic Laloux, 2016, Reinventing Organisations, Lannoo Publishers