Humanocracy; a book review

4 years ago  •  By  •  0 Comments

Humanocracy is a great call to arms explaining the strong “Why” of the exceptional need for radical organizational change. It is very well researched, has some great examples in there, and is easy to read. The book is heavily focused on big organizations and on the economic part of business. In that sense it would work well with what Michael Porter would call Shared Value.

Before I give the rest of the review I want to give some context. My peers and I have been building a normal organization over the past 8 years. We started when we were around 20 people and implemented Holacracy when we grew past 30 at the end of 2013. That also means we have been practicing Holacracy and self management for a long time and have been learning a lot from it. We have grown to a group of 130 people now, and have offices in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, and South Africa. We think that Holacracy is not perfect, it needs lots of addenda, and we are not married to it. Holacracy can also be very effective and using a standard system for change has it’s benefits. With this info in the back of our minds let’s jump into Humanocracy.

Anyone looking for the means to start organization change will learn from this book. But if you’re looking for a “how to” you are looking in the wrong place.

And that is visible just by counting the pages.

62 pages of the book are on “Why” we need to be more human in organizations. I think most people who buy the book know this. You would not have bought the book otherwise. But it is very well built up and the research list in the back shows you the type of people that have written the book. The back of the book also has a great keyword index which is an awesome reference source.

The next 40 pages are case studies – two in-depth cases with nice examples you can learn a lot from.

This is followed up by 123 pages on the DNA of human centric organizations. The “getting started” part of the various chapters are the most useful, but they are not always very concrete.

We then move to 60 pages on how to get started which again starts with a 20-page-long use case. Then there are 20 pages on “how to start”, which does not contain 20 pages of how-to-start info. It does contain some nice content including “Bureaucracy detox” questions, a “Giving away power” chapter which is very good, and a “Hacking management” part which isn’t bad. The “Build your hack” part has a good and recognizable list in there that describes what good experiments or projects look like.

The book then includes 20 pages on “how to scale” which has little info on scaling. It includes a 3 page “rant” on leadership including the contradiction that modern leadership training is focused on soft skills which are of little use in a bureaucracy. For me this is a contradiction if you want to behave normal (human) in any organization. It’s also a contradiction according to the authors who say one page later that we need to “nurture others” in a Humanocracy for which we need those same soft skills.

The book then goes on to the “rethinking change” part. The book makes the case that:

  • Top down change is too slow.
  • It’s hard to change one thing within the system without changing everything
  • You should not impose change, but do it together (very true)

To finish up with “You need DNA-level change and a process that is:”

  • Open to everyone
  • Informed by new principles
  • Radical
  • Generative
  • Peer-regulated
  • Experimental
  • Inescapable.

I totally agree with that list and I would add “based on equality” to the list which set the expectation for middle and top management ;).

The chapter leaves a little bit of a bad aftertaste because of one of the interviews Gary Hamel, one of the authors, gave.

Holacracy is a perfect example of a DNA-level change embracing all the principles listed above, yet in an interview Gary said: “It’s a radical system change and you ask management to give up control which is too difficult. That is why it often fails”. But that is exactly what this book calls for in the “How to” and the “Giving away power” chapter.

You can not say we need DNA-level change and that we need to “give away power” to then say that a system that does this does not work because it’s asking people to give up power.

But this is a good example of “where the shoe pinches” in this book. To be very honest: this book is not radical enough and does not give a real “how to”. The lessons here are good especially for big corporates and they often translate well for smaller organizations.

But if you look at the state of the world, we need more. We don’t need Michael Porter’s Shared Value, we need System Value. And a different system needs new metrics -not just economy and money*, as well as new ways of doing things and yes, that is Human.

Sure you can take Buurtzorg (an at-home care organization) as an awesome example, but they did not make the shift from old to new. They started new which makes them something to aspire to, but also makes them a bad example for change.

I once had the opportunity to co-interview Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wired, who said “You have to look at the edges to see where the center is going”.

I was hoping 10 years of research would lead to a roadmap to these “edges”. It’s also something you can expect when the subtitle states “Creating organizations as amazing as the people inside them”. But the book just makes a great case that we have to start moving and gives us some examples of organizations that have started to walk. I do think there is a formula in there of why they are able to move into the right direction, but the authors were unable to put that on paper.

I just hope it does not take another 10 years to find that formula.

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