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GrantTree’s Journey Towards Self-Management

Anna Swinkels

From Top-Down, to “Flat,” to Holacracy

GrantTree’s Journey Towards Self-Management

Daniel Tenner is the co-founder of GrantTreea London-based tax credit advisory helping pre-revenue startups to access available R&D tax credits from the UK government.

Prior to adopting the Holacracy practice, GrantTree tried to cultivate an autonomous management style, hoping self-management would organically emerge but found a lack of structure held them back.These are excerpts from a conversation with Daniel about the organization’s journey from “home-grown self-management” to Holacracy

The Impulse to Begin

We wanted to do self-management since we discovered Semler’s books and decided to “go without managers” long before adopting Holacracy. The idea really came together when the co-founder (Dan), while looking for information about different ways of working, ended up reading the book Reinventing Organizations and started our journey to the illusory “Teal” destination. This was also a turning point at which we decided to implement the “advice process,” which started us down the path of letting people use their own judgment to make day-to-day decisions, which is also a key principle of Holacracy.

Self-Management Without Structure

Despite our extraordinary efforts to make self-management work for us, we knew there was still a lot of untapped potential in the team. The problem was threefold:

First, strategic decisions weren’t being executed. We would come up with clever strategies, a co-founder would declare them, and nothing would happen. Another was that we discovered one of our core assumptions - that if you remove managers, self-management will flourish - was wrong.

The final problem was the real inner workings of the firm were unintelligible to the outside. If a new person were to ask “how do I get X done?” the answer would be, “well, you should probably talk to this person, and then that person, and then get those people to agree…” — there was no clear map of who was responsible for what, that could be understood by anyone who hadn’t been at GrantTree for at least 6 months.

Our assumption that “if you remove management, self-management will flourish” was dead wrong. If you just remove management, then there is just “no management.” To have self-management, you actually need a helpful structure to enable people to do the work in addition to their day to day work. Otherwise it simply doesn’t get done.

Self-Management With Holacracy®

One of the reasons you want to do self-management from a commercial perspective is that the people who are dealing with clients have all the power they need to do the right thing. When you are B2C you do this by putting all the power in the hands of the call center staff. You don’t stymie them with scripts and processes, you get them to “own the work.”

Holacracy gave us a way to give people the work in a clear and unambiguous way. Everyone knows “the buck stops with them.”

In order to qualify for a UK tax credit, you need something genuinely innovative. About half of our client work is producing reports about the client’s technology. The Holacracy practice allowed us to optimize this process earlier when a team member made a proposal to outsource part of the work. It’s a decision we tried to make in the past unsuccessfully. Now that we have, it’s helping the business save tens of thousands of pounds and free up a lot of time.

Structure . . . and Flexibility

Holacracy had this reputation of being “rigid” and that worried the team. Thankfully, that turned out not to be true.

The Holacracy practice turned out to be just a set of tools, off the shelf, that you get to apply to how you work. There are obviously many ways to run or build a business, and we still get to build it any way we want to, we just run it using this off-the-shelf system. You can’t play chess and not play with certain pieces. The same is true for the Holacracy practice.

To put it another way, we could have built our own spreadsheet but Excel is just better. Some of us use pivot tables while others only use charts. But we don’t use a different spreadsheet and chart app. We use Excel.

This constraint ironically helps make our “open culture” movement work. It gives us a means to get things done better by the hands of the frontline technicians.

People who think Holacracy is limited just lack imagination. It provides even more flexibility than when we had no structure because Holacracy invites you to be intentional about what part of the business you are working on. Staff now feel like they have a quick means of “hacking” Holacracy to fit our culture.

Encoding a Culture of Self-Motivation

The Holacracy practice has given us a way of to encode our culture.

With Holacracy, we don’t need a constant reminder from the CEO to keep momentum. The way things work are now explicitly and clearly documented. Strategically speaking, GrantTree has moved from only being able to make one big decision a month to making lots of smaller incremental changes each week. Now circles and business units with budgets can get even more done.

Ironically, one of the co-founders has now found she can spend less time managing the business and has even more power to influence needed change because of how interconnected and explicit things are.

Original post by HolacracyOne:

Reinventing Fronteer

Anna Swinkels

Fronteer embraced Holacracy – but not overnight

Fronteer – a 20-strong strategy agency focusing on positive impact – embarked on an ambitious journey in 2016. We felt there was a need for change.

Were we a perfect company? No. Not at all
We found out that not all was great at the Fronteer. There was a lack of trust in the company. Management and the rest of the team felt disconnected from each other. People complained about.. almost everything. All in all: we sounded like a normal company. We could have continued the way we worked. But we did not want to. We felt we could do more, and work better, we could be nicer, and more honest. We could achieve much better results. We could be a much better team.

Organic process
The way we approach it proved to be a cornerstone of our future way of working. We did it organically. We designed a four-step approach to finding out what was wrong exactly, and where we the answer might lie. People automatically formed groups based on shared interest, a timeline was made and sessions were organized. Progress was made. By itself almost. Like magic. We used co-creation as we advise our clients to do.

Reinventing Fronteer
Firstly, we decided to open the can of worms and get all negative experiences out in the open. We called it the ‘museum of old sentiments’. During a session we collected all our input and literally hung it on the walls, we also visited the art pieces and discussed them. We highlighted what we wanted to solve going forward.
Secondly, we dove deep into ourselves. We focused on each individual unique personality and created an understanding of each other’s weaknesses and strengths.
Thirdly, we used one of our own tools called Parallel Perspectives and visited inspiring companies who already had a rather fresh way of working. We learned about self-managing teams, Holacracy and about purpose-driven organizations. This tremendously triggered our own thinking.
Lastly, we created the ‘ultimate pirate ship’ and redesigned Fronteer, from the ground up. We felt we needed a clear purpose, an organization built on trust and a model in which anyone can thrive based on his talents. In order to make our lives’ easier we decided to take the ultimate step: we became a holacratic organization and signed the constitution. There was no way back.

In a nutshell: Holacracy is a system in which you organize work based on personal preferences and ‘tensions’. It is holistic and autocratic. If no-one feels the need to solve a problem or capture an opportunity, the work simply won’t be done. Everybody fulfills multiple roles in multiple circles, who all belong to an ever-changing system. People can switch roles, and redesign the system. One of the most important rules is: take the Ferrari. Just do what you think it needed. It is more difficult to stop someone than to execute a new idea.

Sounds difficult to implement? Yes, it is, at first. is it a serious investment? For sure. Worth it? Yes! There is no way I am going back to the old Fronteer.

by Martijn Pater

Bullfrog: attention points in GlassFrog

Pieter Wijkstra

If you practice self-organization, you'll recognize that allocating time across responsibilities can be challenging. Whether for your roles or other roles in the circle, having guidelines on how much time to spend on ongoing duties can help divide time and set priorities. This blog introduces a solution to organize this as well as a software tool to support it. 

Little over a year ago we supported The Mobile Company, an Amsterdam based developer of mobile apps, in implementing Holacracy. They are picking up speed, a testimony of which is an in-house developed app that connects to GlassFrog. One of the tensions TMC wanted to process is the allocation of resources. We shared the concept of 'Attention Points' which allows Lead Links to allocate attention points to roles, acting as a guideline on how much 'effort' Partners should spend on each role. See below example (part of OB governance) of such a policy.

The TMC tool connects to the Glassfrog API to download all People, Circles, and Roles. A web interface allows logged in users to administer and review Attention Points per RoleFiller and Sub-Circle. As GlassFrog does not foresee in this functionality, and manual administration is cumbersome, this tool is the perfect solution. The tool is available from GitHub where installation instructions are also listed.

OrganizationBuilders Attention Points policy

This policy defines a new type of currency for the organization, called "Attention Points" (or AP's for short). Attention Points will ultimately get allocated to a role, to "fund" the role with partner attention. A role allocated 100 Attention Points indicates the ideal attention for that role equals one full-focus partner in total; 200 AP's means the ideal attention is that of two full-focus partners, while 50 means the ideal is half of a full-focus partner's attention. 1 point is equivalent to roughly 1-2 hours per month.

No partner may dedicate more focus to a role on a sustained, ongoing basis than is called for by the allocated Attention Points and is requested to signal the difference to the circle's Lead Link. 

Only the Lead Link of the circle adopting this policy may create new Attention Points, and once created they become a resource of the circle, similar to a cash budget. The partner or role that owns/controls Attention Points may allocate them to a role to fund desired attention within the role or may transfer them to another partner or role to so allocate. Once allocated to a role/circle, Attention Points may be unallocated and reallocated by whatever role/partner allocated them in the first place.

How Lead Links lead

Pieter Wijkstra

A Circle’s Lead Link inherits the Purpose and any Accountabilities on the Circle itself, and controls any Domains defined on the Circle, just as if the Circle were only a Role and the Lead Link filled that Role.
— Holacracy Constitution 4.1, article 2.2.1


Seen from above, the Lead Link is the person to whom a Circle assigns a set of accountabilities for him/her to organize. In this context, organizing means assigning roles: the Lead Link is the only one in the Circle who can assign roles. The Lead Link can do so at his discretion.

In practice

A Lead Link is the closest you can get to a traditional manager in Holacracy. He behaves similarly to a traditional manager in many things:

  • Establishing performance metrics

  • Maximising Circle performance

  • Monitoring Circle member performance

  • Defining Circle strategies

However, a Lead Link has only two unique tools to help him. First, he can reshuffle Role assignments if he believes moving Roles between team members will improve performance. Second, he can publish Strategies which serve as a guideline for each Circle member in prioritizing work. Other than that, the Lead Link can use the tactical and governance process just like any other team member may. 

Filling a Lead Link Role is hardly ever a full-time job; usually, a Lead Link fulfills one or more 'regular' Roles in the Circle too, placing him far more in the midst of the team rather than above. 

Additional information

Contrary to the traditional manager, a Lead Link has far less authority. First, a Lead Link may only influence the prioritization of Circle Members' activities; he cannot step in and direct how Circle Members should work. Nor does the Lead Link have any explicit authority to 'sign off' or 'approve'  any work done by Circle Members.

Note that, to safeguard the Circle from (accidentally) transforming the Lead Link to a traditional manager, no accountabilities may be added to the Lead Link Role. Period. For similar reasons, a Circle's Lead Link may not be elected as Facilitator or Rep Link. The Rep Link in itself is also meant to 'balance' the Lead Link; it is the Lead Link who represents a Circle in the Super-Circle. Think of the Rep Link as the 'upward channel'  whereas the Lead Link is a 'downward channel'.

For the Lead Link, assigning Roles is an ongoing activity, and he can do so outside of Tactical and Governance meetings.

The Lead Link is assumed to fulfill any unassigned roles. Remember: The Lead Link is assigned with the accountabilities of the Circle, so if he opts not to assign a Role then who else is accountable?

A Circle's Lead Link is assigned by the Super-Circle's Lead Link. (seen from the Super-Circle, any Sub-Circle is a Role)

Relevant articles: 2.2, 2.4, 2.5.1, 2.6.3 


Pieter Wijkstra

Things the Role may exclusively control and regulate as its property, on behalf of the Organization
— Holacracy Constitution 4.1, article 1.1(b)


A circle can establish a domain if it wishes to regulate access to something within the circle's control. It can be anything: an asset (all the heavy-duty machinery), segments defined by the organization (customers located in the Netherlands), activities (maintaining IT hardware), intellectual property (Logo) and other things. 

National parks are open to the public, provided they pay entry fee and comply with park regulations. Park rangers ensure visitors adhere to this. 

National parks are open to the public, provided they pay entry fee and comply with park regulations. Park rangers ensure visitors adhere to this. 


In practice

Controlling and regulating does not imply no one may use/access the domain other than whoever holds the domain. It means he/she oversees the access and usage of this item and anyone wishing to access/use it must ask his/her permission. A domain holder has the duty of processing such requests, even over executing other work. 


Granting permission on an individual basis can be cumbersome and may introduce unnecessary delays. Hence the opportunity for the domain holder to publish policies which stipulate the conditions under which (certain) people may access the domain without domain holder approval.

Additional information

Within a circle 'All functions and activities' is also considered a domain. This implies the circle can establish policies regarding the work that the circle does. (Sample: 'all social media outings must mention the name of the organization'). 

If a domain is delegated to a subcircle that chooses not to delegate it to a Role within this subcircle, then the following applies:

  • Establishing policies for all circle member is done via governance in the subcircle
  • The circle's lead link may establish policies in the Supercircle

Relevant articles: 1.1.(b), 2.1.2, 2.1.3, 4.1.2(c), 4.1.3(a)

The Responsibility Poem

Pieter Wijkstra

Charles Osgood

Charles Osgood is best known a 1930's radio and television commentator from the US. In addition to his radio and tv work he wrote columns and published several books. Recently, his 'Responsibility Poem' was brought to our attention. It is a beautiful little poem that (Whether in a self-organization context or not) illustrates clearly how important it is to make responsibilities extremely clear and transparent!

There is the original, and a condensed form. Both are great so we've decided to include both.

Condensed Version

There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody couldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have.

Full Version

There was a most important job that needed to be done,
And no reason not to do it, there was absolutely none.
But in vital matters such as this, the thing you have to ask
Is who exactly will it be who’ll carry out the task?

Anybody could have told you that Everybody knew
That this was something Somebody would surely have to do.
Nobody was unwilling; Anybody had the ability.
But Nobody believed that it was their responsibility.

It seemed to be a job that Anybody could have done,
If Anybody thought he was supposed to be the one.
But since Everybody recognized that Anybody could,
Everybody took for granted that Somebody would.

But Nobody told Anybody that we are aware of,
That he would be in charge of seeing it was taken care of.
And Nobody took it upon himself to follow through,
And do what Everybody thought that Somebody would do.

When what Everybody needed so did not get done at all,
Everybody was complaining that Somebody dropped the ball.
Anybody then could see it was an awful crying shame,
And Everybody looked around for Somebody to blame.

Somebody should have done the job
And Everybody should have,
But in the end, Nobody did
What Anybody could have.


Tactical meeting variations

Pieter Wijkstra

We frequently get feedback that Tactical meetings follow a strict process. Which is true – you can read it here (Article 4.2.3) as it is defined in the constitution. And it is not true – in this blog post we want to share a couple of variations you can use within this process.

Let's take the meeting process step by step. And remember it's up to you to decide how you want to fill the tactical time you have as a circle.

The check-in

  • Min: Just give a thumbs up, a quick nod, say “check”
  • Max: Meditate for a minute and then share what got your attention

The pre-amble: checklists, metrics & project updates

It's there to build together a 'radar overview' of where the circle stands. But actually, you could just skip-it. You have the option to include check-lists, metrics, project updates – but if they are not there then just let it go.


By constitution are just quick yes/no’s. If you need more then maybe add it as a metric? Or it benefits better to be on the agenda. You could just trigger that with a checklist saying something like “is there news on topic X which I will put on the agenda to process?”


  • Min: just share the numbers. Or not even that. Just show the dashboard on the screen and have people read it for a couple of seconds after which they can just by themselves add tensions to the agenda.
  • Max: role by role you give the metrics number from the dashboard and add a couple of comments to it why the number is the number – share what you believe is really interesting for the circle to know!

Project updates

  • Min: Say “no updates” or "will share info/need/action/... in separate agenda item"
  • Max: go project by project and share the highs/lows of the progress you made. Typically amazing things happen when you are transparent about things that are not going so well.

Processing tensions

  • Min: Say "I want to inform the group that I have taken the following action ... "  - no discussion.

  • Max: Use the time to facilitate a group discussion on a particular topic. For these discussions, it is very important to assure that spending this time adds value (is likely to) for all participants. If the topic only concerns a few of the participants, it is a better idea to book dedicated time for this topic outside of the tactical meeting.

Closing round

  • Min: "Great meeting"

  • Max: Lengthy reflection, possibly introducing new bits of information. 

Is this variation not yet enough for you? Then two more suggestions:

  • Anything that happens in the tactical meeting can be done outside the tactical meeting. You can share your metrics online, work out loud with a continuous stream of project updates on an open communication platform, and solve tensions as they occur between roles.
  • Check for example the Scrum app on the Holacracy Community Of Practice on how to adapt the tactical meeting to sync with a scrum way of working.

What are holacracy roles?

Pieter Wijkstra


A "Role" is an organizational construct with a descriptive name and one of the following: a Purpose, one or more Domains and one or more Accountabilities.  - Holacracy™ Constitution 4.1, article 1.1
Are there prizes for best roles? 

Are there prizes for best roles? 


Roles are the 'building blocks' of an organization. Together, they represent all the activities that are performed in an organization. Individually, they show the lowest level at which accountabilities are grouped - so they can be assigned to anyone in the organization.

Circles (teams) can be formed by grouping multiple roles together: the resulting circle then operates one level below the original circle. Seen from the original (the 'super-circle'), this 'sub-circle' is is a single role which is represented by the sub-circles Lead Link and rep link. 

In practice

A single person may fill multiple Roles at the same time, and a single Role can be filled, by multiple individuals. Filling a role comes with a few explicit responsibilities:

  • Processing tensions into meaningful governance
  • Processing purpose and accountabilities into work
  • Tracking the status of work and tensions

Besides responsibilities, a Role comes with authority:

  • Authority to execute any action you believe fits your Role's purpose or accountabilities
  • Authority to control and regulate any Domain delegated to your Role

Amending a Role's purpose, domains and accountabilities is a major aspect of a Circle's Governance process. Assigning roles is not part of the governance process: this is an accountability of the Lead Link and hence falls under 'regular' work which he can do outside of meetings. If he does not assign a role to anyone, the associated accountabilities are his responsibility. 

Roles assignments may be done for a focus area; specifying a certain area of operation for which someone fulfills the role. An example is an "Editor" role, filled by a Spanish native for Spanish articles" and an English native for English articles.

Relevant articles from the Holacracy Constiturion: 1.1., 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 2.1, 2.2.

Holacracy Forum: Koen's takeaways

Koen Veltman


Amsterdam was the scene of the first ever Holacracy forum. A 100+ Holacracy pioneers from across the globe joining for a 3 days to exchange expertise and share their organization passions. And at the same time celebrating the 10 year anniversary of Holacracy. OrganizationBuilders founder Koen Veltman reflects on his main takeaways:

The diversity of Organizations applying Holacracy is incredible

This three-day event really strengthened the sense of community between Holacracy practitioners. Most of us have been exchanging ideas and messages online or haven’t seen each other since the first training.

Expertise is emerging AND there is so much more to experiment with

To just name a couple of examples: we had presentations on different compensation models, on onboarding new employees, on how to align resource allocation supported by great technology integrations and on links with well-known approaches like GTD.

At the same time this still feels like we are only at the start of all the possibilities there are to tailor solutions on top of the Holacracy operating system. We recognize we are all still pioneering and experimenting with developing the supportive “system” for a full self-organized organizational ecosystem. Sometimes this task feels a bit daunting, but most of the time its excited to tension-by-tension evolve our understanding of self-organization.

Implementation is my personal passion

Holacracy is a well defined model. Of course its just version 4.1 and 5.0 is already in the making. What attracts me the most is the approaches to make the transition from a traditional to a self-organized system. So many different organizations are on this path. And each organization taking a different approach to implementation. From the first meetings to how you anchor your formal processes into Holacracy as well and beyond.

"Holacracy allows me to treat people as adults"

Pieter Wijkstra

On Monday, engineers from the City of Amsterdam were offered a unique opportunity to learn from Michael DeAngelo, who leads the Holacracy experiment at Washington Technology Solutions. WaTech is the shared service center for the state of Washington, home to tech giants like Microsoft, Amazon, and Boeing, which makes it one of the world’s most important tech hubs.

Attracting talent in these places means making opportunities stand out against some of the most attractive and well-paid jobs of today. Exactly this challenge drove Michael, deputy director, to look for ways in which WaTech could turn public service work an equal alternative. Research on career attractiveness showed that for ±80% of today’s workforce autonomy was an important driver in choosing an employer.

At the same time, Michael learned about Holacracy from a local tech start-up and, although the ‘remember me’ post-it sat on his computer for over a month, he instantly felt it could allow him to ‘organize autonomy’ at WaTech. After several months of piloting with one team, WaTech started an experiment with 150 participants and support from Harvard University to measure the impact of a control group.

Michael showed us WaTech's current governance, which is open to the public ( link )

Michael showed us WaTech's current governance, which is open to the public (link)

At this moment, even though the quantitative data is still lacking, WaTech has already decided to entirely approve Holacracy as an equivalent to the management hierarchy, meaning any team is free to use Holacracy or not. The impact WaTech was able to measure is mainly operational: decision speed went from 20 down to 2 minutes. On the governance side, surveys show employees experience higher empowerment (up from 60% to 90%) and indicate a higher intent to stay. It’s too early to say whether the latter holds true in practice, but it’s definitely a promising step up.

From his experience Michael was able to share many challenges and conclusions, the most insightful ones being:

Did all teams make a successful power shift? “Some did not: the key enabler here is the type of leadership practiced by the (former) manager, more so than the age.”

Did Holacracy make you more efficient? “For two circles it was decided not to hire generalists after managers left the company. One circle indicated they could do without and rather hire a specialist to add specific skills. The other circle still has a vacancy…” and “Before implementing Holacracy, I spent 80% of my time on ‘other’ stuff that required my manager input, now I spend 80% on content related material.”

Does Holacracy take extra time? “Technically, it does: Operational meetings replaced our regular meetings, so Governance is extra. At first, we spent considerable time here, but one year on governance is no issue anymore: we just do it.”

Do you find it harder to speak about careers (and underperformance) with employees? “Holacracy allows me to treat people like adults.”


Michael showed a graph that clearly indicated almost all WaTech teams experienced challenges at some point, but 'over time they all managed to climb out again'.

Michael showed a graph that clearly indicated almost all WaTech teams experienced challenges at some point, but 'over time they all managed to climb out again'.