Welcome to our interview with Tom Thomison. Tom is a Founding Member, Partner at encode.org, llc and Co-Founder at HolacracyOne. Tom Thomison is an entrepreneur and recognized leader in self-organization practices and methods. In 2007, he co-founded HolacracyOne, LLC to further develop and mature Holacracy®, now a gold-standard replacement for conventional management hierarchies.
Welcome Tom, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of the Exploring Forward Thinking Workplaces 2.0 conversation.
How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Those are very aspirational goals. I think we all want to work in that type of environment. I know I do. How do we start? By making it real for ourselves first. Figuring out how to do that—not relying on others to do it for us and that can go many different ways. If you’re an entrepreneur, you might start something. If you’re an innovator, you might find a company that wants to innovate with you. It’s taking accountability and responsibility and figuring it out for yourself.
Then from my perspective and my work over at least the last 20 years, it’s figuring out the answer to that question of how to make that real. For me, I tried, like most consultants and most business owners and entrepreneurs, with all the usual things—incremental improvements like business process reengineering, total quality management, higher performance teaming, self-directed teaming, lean systems, agile systems, and agile development.
I was at the top of my consulting game about 10 to 15 years ago working with a lot of large enterprises and competing with all the big consulting firms like PWC, McKinsey, and others. Yet I was feeling like we’re beating our heads against the wall trying all these cool, clever techniques and not getting the results we wanted long term. It’s not that the techniques are bad. In fact, they have embedded in them kernels of brilliance, wisdom and good practices. But what I found is they go back in the very same system that’s been around for a couple of hundred years—the authority system, the power hierarchy, the management hierarchy.
Inevitably over about 18 months, all that goodness that was in business process reengineering, or total quality management, or lean manufacturing atrophied, withered away and died. So about ten years ago I got tired of beating my head against the wall. I was continuing to look for better ways to answer that question that you posed and that led me to all sorts of innovations. I crossed paths with Brian Robertson who was experimenting with the same question and with different approaches in his software company. What emerged from that was a company called HolacracyOne that we launched together in 2007 to change that management hierarchy, to change the power distribution system, to change the core fundamental operating system of an organization to make that kind of workspace that we want, and to bring into reality a place where you can show up—a place where you can lend your time, energy and talent towards a purpose that you care about.
I think one of the fundamental ways of getting there is addressing and changing the core operating system, which gives a healthy environment for people to show up to innovate, participate, and have a sense of what might be possible for the organization—to do something about it. This environment would provide a pathway to do their work without the fear of being ignored or overruled and without the burden of trying to seek or reach consensus in ideas. Instead they would have a self-organizing system, and this is at its roots what Holacracy is. It’s a self-management and self-organizing system to rethink the fundamental operating system or an organization completely.
For me, this is how I make that manifest. Starting a company ten years ago to bring Holacracy into the world helps to address those issues. Another definition for it is a continuous improvement process. Holacracy is a self-organizing system that allows everyone to sense and respond to what’s needed—that is innovation. It’s continuous innovation because you’re continually sensing into what might be possible, and you have a clear pathway to do something about it on an ongoing basis.
My story is like your story in the work you are doing here at Exploring Forward-Thinking Workplaces™. It’s addressing what’s underneath. Sometimes the language we’ve been focused on is on the bolt-on ancillary systems, tools, and practices. But we haven’t addressed the core, which has been around a couple of hundred years or more—management hierarchy—top down and predict and control. It’s hard to address the core, but I think it’s one of the most fundamental shifts that you can make to change the fundamental concept or understanding of what an organization is and change that core operating system.
What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
First, don’t make them employees! [laughs] At my new endeavor, encode.org, we’re working to move beyond employees. With these new operating and self-management systems in place, we’re grounding those systems legally, so it allows for individuals to show up as full legal members wherever they are in their career. This does not have the connotation that it’s big and heavy weight with lots of responsibility and capital investment. It just means a member that cares about the purpose of the organization can show up to sense and respond to whatever’s needed to participate in the running instruction of that organization and not be an employee.
I think your question is a perfectly valid question because 99.59% of the world is employer/employee relationships, but we need to change that. I think embedded in the question is the problem. It’s the assumption that that’s how the world should be—an employer/employee relationship. We need to change that. I’m working hard to make that a reality. It’s not just aspirational, but a concrete legal reality where we can take these very same self-organizing principles that we find in Holacracy and now embed those in our legal structures, so that individuals who want to contribute to a purpose, can do so as a legal partner, not as an employee.
Then we change the game completely because that person can now be an investor. Even if it’s just a little bit, the person can benefit from sharing in the profits of the organization and contribute towards the purpose they care about. They’re not following a leader; they’re not under a power hierarchy. They’re showing up consciously because they care about the work. And they contribute to that work through a self-managing or self-organizing process like Holacracy. This changes the game completely.
I have the opportunity to share this vision, and the concrete reality we’re making with a lot of folks. People will often say to me, “What about the ordinary worker that just wants a paycheck?” I tell them that’s perfectly fine! In fact, even better! I’ve worked with a lot of organizations that would be classified as classic blue collar kind of work. In those kinds of workers, there’s passion for their craft, for their art, for their industry. They love what they do, and that is just fine. It doesn’t need to be any more than that.
An example I often use is an aviation company I work with. They are some cool folks that just love aviation. They love aircraft; they love the mechanics, the avionics, and the repair. They de-ice the planes, they refuel the planes, they maintain the planes—they love aviation. That was their craft. They can work as independent agents pursuing their purpose in an organization and just show up doing their work—participating and lending their time, energy and talent to a purpose they care about in that format. Not as an employee, but as a legal partner. That’s how you get engagement.
What do people really lack and long for at work?
I’d say they lack meaning, connection, purpose, growth, and development. Work is where we spend the clear majority of our time. It’s our extended or second families in some cases. In a sad number of cases, we’re working in a dysfunctional environment with an unwanted dysfunctional family.
Fundamentally, we want a sense that my contribution matters, and that I can see it. We want a sense that my contribution matters, and I have the feedback to let me know that that’s true. I want to see that I can make a difference.
We all want to make a difference and do that in big or small ways—in whatever ways make sense. That could be that I do meaningful work, and I get compensated fairly for that meaningful work to take care of my family. Then that means that work has meaning for that individual. I think those of us in the consulting field or in the organization design or development field, sometimes project grandiose ideas onto ordinary situations. We make it more complicated than it needs to be. We all just want to find meaning in our work, and that meaning takes many forms. It spans a broad spectrum if you will. Allowing for that meaning to show up for each individual is what’s important.
What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
I’ve not lived or worked in a management hierarchy for a decade. But of course, I’ve helped other organizations who are still in a manager/employee model. I would like to shift this question to my context if you will because I think underneath the question in a conventional frame is the question, “How can we align better around the work, manager to employee? So the right question I think is, “How can we redirect everyone’s focus to the purpose of the organization? How can we get everybody aligned with purpose—not with management?”
Purpose is the new cohering force—not good management. In fact, management just needs to end! I had an interview a couple of days ago in Bucharest, Romania, with one of the leading employer organizations. They asked a very similar question about management and employees, “What’s the future of management?” I said, “It’s dead, but it doesn’t know it yet!” His jaw dropped, and he said, “I can’t publish that!”
The whole notion of the manager/employee relationship I think just needs to die. I’ll just be that blunt. The new question is, “How do we get everyone, without that artificial distinction of manager or employee, working for purpose?” How do we get everyone in a system that allows their gifts and talents to be applied to or expressed for the organization’s purpose? That’s the new question. How can we all get engaged in getting this purpose into the world?
But I think there are two fundamental components of this new world of work—being clear on purpose and having a clear power distribution system to energize towards that purpose. In Holacracy, there’s a language cue of having the right relationship with power. Power and purpose very closely correlate. I think in the coming years that purpose work is going to be re-emergent.
In Tim Kelly’s book True Purpose, there are some very concrete ways of understanding purpose and breaking down purpose. Also, there is also this notion of an evolutionary purpose that is key. Frederic Laloux writes about this in Reinventing Organizations, and it’s a fundamental aspect of Holacracy that the organization pursues “its” evolutionary purpose. I think we as individuals have an evolutionary purpose. In other words, we have an always evolving understanding of our purpose in the world. It’s never a fixed purpose. In effect, I kind of hold the Forrest Gump definition—purpose is as purpose does.In one regard, you can’t ever not be on purpose; you’re always doing what you’re doing. But having a better, deeper, more nuanced understanding of your work in the world, your purpose in the world, your gift or blessing or mission in the world—as Tim Kelly might put it—is super important.
What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?
In a world with no employees or no managers, this question drops to, “What can we all do to manifest purpose in the world?” And just to restate what I said above, everyone should be working on lending their time, energy and talent towards a purpose that has meaning for them. This shifts the focus of organizations to purpose. Organizations for a purpose. Work for a purpose.
That purpose is presumably something that the world needs and something that would be missing from the world if not being delivered by this organization, so it has deep meaning. And employees getting an opportunity to usher that in, not as employees but as individuals who happen to care about that purpose in the world. I think that is the reframe for both managers in the prior question and for employees in this question. Remove the artificial distinction and get everyone energizing the work of the organization for purpose.
What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?
I think true to the theme of my prior responses; it’s to make conscious choices. I believe the following questions are important: “What questions can we ask ourselves? Is this a conscious choice I’m making to lend time, energy and talent towards something other than self?”
Be conscious about your work. Be intentional about your work. Be introspective about how your work has meaning for you and the organization. Wake up more. Be more engaged in that process. Both as a self-development process and just a clear choice making process about what you do with your life, your time, your energy, and your talent.
I think that’s the question, “How do we grow up and wake up?” which is just a general theme overall. I think that’s an evolutionary thing that’s happening no matter what. There’s a trend line there. We’re all becoming more awake or more conscious over time hopefully. And that’s where our organizations need to be—inviting all of us to be more conscious, to have more choice making, to bring more intention to our work without fear. And just trying to face your own reality in that as well. Be honest about what you need. Ask for what you need in that process too. More conscious choice making.
Also, I want to caveat what I just said above. For me, that’s all true, and the danger is it often gets conflated or inflated in a way. Being more conscious about what you need and not apologizing for it and not trying to be developed to be any different from where you are. Let me go back to my aviation worker example above, and knowing why you work…
For example, I work because I love my craft. I love my industry. I get gratification from working in this field, and it takes care of my family. And just being honest. It’s back to that being conscious. Being honest about why I am working and not trying to meet other people’s expectations of why you should work. I think it’s just honest and real too. It’s being almost unapologetic about why you’re doing what you’re doing. I do that to only contrast against our current system that feels like—to put it simply—it puts people in the position of having to “sing for their supper,” or compromise, or show up differently than they are naturally, or put up with it to get the paycheck to take care of their other needs. What I’m pointing to is to consciously choose to work without being compromised.
What is the current state of Holacracy in the world today?
Right now, today, we have a decade of experience with Holacracy. Hundreds of organizations all over the world are running under the Holacracy Constitution. In the Holacracy Constitution, which is legally adopted, by policy, by the power holder of the company. It makes everybody a partner. A partner in the Constitution. And that partner has an equal voice. That partner can sense and respond to opportunities or issues that need to be addressed without fear of any management hierarchy getting in the way because there is no management hierarchy.
We can do this exactly today to address the issue of employee engagement, but we’re failing. We all know we’re failing with employee engagement. We have been for decades. My short answer is to stop doing that and do something else! That something else is getting everybody involved on an equal basis with equal voice but not in a flat structure, but in a deep hierarchy of how the work self-organizes according to the purpose and what it takes to fulfill that purpose. Then let everybody participate in the running, structuring, and expression of that work in that hierarchy.
We can do that today. Any organization anywhere in the world that is tired of the management hierarchy and sees the limits of that can adopt the Holacracy Constitution to transform employees to partners to get the work done. Now legally, if they haven’t made the other legal shifts, those individuals are legal employees. There’s some downside to that, but we can only fix a little bit at a time.