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 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.
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 many large enterprises and competing with all the big consulting firms like PWC, McKinsey, and others. Yet I felt 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 in business process reengineering, total quality management, lean manufacturing atrophied, withered away, and died. So about ten years ago, I got tired of beating my head against the wall. I continued to look for better ways to answer that question that you posed, which led me to all sorts of innovations. I crossed paths with Brian Robertson, who experimented with the same question and 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.
One of the fundamental ways of getting there is addressing and changing the core operating system, which gives a healthy environment for people 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.
Note: This is a preview of the full interview. The complete interview was selected by Apress for publication and continues in The Future of the Workplace.