This interview was done by Gabriela Krupa. She works at Energized.org, a company that helps organizations to implement Holacracy. Gabriela wanted to measure the impact of Holacracy in organisations that actually adopted Holacracy and that is why she interviewed Mark.
Interview with Mark Vletter
Voys joined the Holacracy family in March 2015. Mark Vletter is the founder of Voys and Devhouse Spindle. Voys is the fastest growing B2B telecom provider in the Netherlands. Devhouse Spindle is a shack full of nerds coding on the world’s leading communication platforms. The companies employ over 70 people. Mark’s roles include the roles of Activator (coaching others in setting thoughts into measurable actions) Product Owner and Preacher (spreading the word about the Voys Model – a stack of tools and methods for working in a self-organisational way, including Holacracy).
This is Mark’s story about Holacracy
Mark, it is a pleasure to have you here. The topic of our conversation will oscillate around your experience with Holacracy. However, I would like to open our talk with a question about the values you hold as a person and as an entrepreneur.
When my wife was asked about it, she said that “it’s just Mark”. It is a tough question to answer. My core values have always been around equality, fairness and honesty. This is the foundation of everything we have done here. We want to be equal and fair with each other and with our clients. So I think that fairness and equality are the cornerstones of Voys and Spindle. Other things that are important in our culture are openness, personal relations and support. But it all start with being fair and equal.
Have your values taken part in the decision to adopt Holacracy as an operating system for Voys and Spindle?
We’ve always strived for equality and we’ve always searched for a system where everyone is equal and can thrive in a company. We’d done a test before we adopted Holacracy and we’d discovered our two main problems. On the one hand we were lacking the clarity around responsibilities and on the other we were lacking a system to give effective feedback on what someone is doing. People wanted to be more goal oriented. So those were the things that were wrong in our old system. We wanted to fix them. We wanted to find a foundation to implement accountabilities for things without implementing hierarchy. At first, we tried to hack our system old system but then we discovered Holacracy and that it solves problems that we struggled with by default.
I’ve heard that a lot has changed at both companies. When you think about them and the period before and after Holacracy, what kind of notions come to mind?
Several.. after Holacracy responsibility, entrepreneurship, and faster evolution. Before Holacracy, to be honest not much comes to mind. I’d rather focus on the present day.
What do you mean by faster evolution? Could you give us some kind of example?
Actually I have a great example. The first year I went on holiday the company halted while I was gone. The year that followed the company continued operations during the holiday, but it didn’t evolve. The past few years the company evolved a bit while I was on holiday, and this year— with Holacracy in place — everything has changed. Everything improved during my absence. In the past there would be a stack of operational work waiting for my approval, if not physically on my desk, at least in the mind of people. This time I got back and there was absolutely no operational work waiting for me. A friend of mine asked me before I went on holiday ‘Are you busy with finishing all your work and handing it over?’ and I answered ‘No I’m not’ and then, when I got back, the only things that were waiting for me were my personal tasks and things I wanted to work on.
What Holacracy is NOT to you?
It’s not a complete system, it doesn’t say anything about company’s culture, on-boarding people and so on. All it does is organizing work. This is the only thing, but it does this really well. You could call it a method to get things done in an efficient way in a company. I really like the metaphor about an operating system. Holacracy is an operating system for us.
What has surprised you after these six months?
How far some people have advanced. Some of them are way better in adopting Holacracy than I am myself. The best example of how far people have advanced is the project to move our office. I had absolutely no clue what it was going to be like, because I was not involved. Only the people who had responsibilities in their roles were involved. I came back from my vacation and everything was changing. A friend of mine felt a bit concerned when he heard about this and he asked me: “Aren’t you fearful on how it’s going to be done?” and I answered that I am absolutely not worried at all. I trust my people and I know that I wouldn’t be able to do a better job myself. I think that if I were involved it would have been a lot worse, it would have consumed much more time.
What were the biggest challenges when the implementation started?
Getting people involved and making them understand how to become entrepreneurial. I feel that in the long run this is most crucial and difficult part. I think that there will be some people within a company that are going to do just their everyday job, have their roles that they are accountable for and that is just it. For some people that will never change. A big question is: is this a bad thing? Does everyone need to be involved more and evolve their roles and our company in a proactive way? This has been an internal conflict of mine ever since I started the company. I think that the people who work against changes, those are the people you don’t want on board. I think that getting people to adopt the system and become entrepreneurial are the two things that will always be exciting and tricky in the same time, and they will decide about the success of Holacracy. If you want your company to evolve you need people working not only in the company but also on the company. And some people will be more within the ‘in’ part than the ‘on’ part and that’s ok, but there need to find a balance.
Like you’ve mentioned, some people adopt the new way of working faster sone slower. Does it happen that some people seek your guidance and approval?
That is what I find difficult, especially filling the Lead Link role. If you have a strong Lead Link he or she will enable others to become leaders within their roles. If you don’t have a strong Lead Link, within a circle, it gets very tough. The most successful circles have very good Lead Links in my opinion, they are very coachable and they enable others to become leaders. An example of a weak circle is when a Lead Link isn’t able to enforce others to become entrepreneurial.
The Holacracy system consists of many rules and roles, one of them being the Lead Link role. In many articles and statements people have been questioning the complicated nature of the system. What is your opinion on this matter after experiencing Holacracy?
I think that there is a reason that all this stuff got developed. It’s been developing for years now. When you come to think about it and analyse it, it makes so much sense and it is very logical. Let’s take an example of the Rep Link and Lead Link roles. One is oriented externally one is oriented internally. You have different character which fits these roles, and if you merged the two a lot would get lost because you don’t find the traits you need for each role in one person. Another example is the Purpose part of a role. From my experience, the purpose gives you guidance and it validates if you are doing the right things. It gives direction and answers the part of ‘why’. So in our case, we treat Holacracy as a proven system, we never had any debate on whether or not a part of it is good or bad. We take it as a whole. The system’s evolved this way for a reason. We don’t want to develop a new system; we want to adopt a proven one.
“When you come to think about it and analyse it, it makes so much sense and it is very logical.”
What would you advise to your friend who was considering implementation of Holacracy at her company?
Hire a coach. Seriously hire a coach. Learning Holacracy is like learning monopoly only with a two centimetres thick rule book, without anyone present who has already played the game before, which in my opinion, is almost impossible. Surely, you can learn the rounds of tactical meeting but when there is nobody around to explain what the secretary has to do, what is the role of facilitator, or Rep Link, it gets really difficult in practice. When you implement a whole new system in your company it is really important to have someone who will handle the difficult questions, and there will be lots, believe me.
At the moment you run two companies that are organised as an Holacracy. You mentioned before we started this conversation that one of them, Spindle, adapts Holacracy faster. Are there any articular reasons?
They are more digital. The fact that you don’t need permission, you don’t need consensus within the whole group, they just embraced it. They took it as a fact. They also are more direct and critical if they see that someone isn’t playing by the rules they are quite vocal about it. They have the right mindset on improving things, they don’t want to make things perfect, they want to make things better. They are more used to working lean.
How does Holacracy differentiate your companies from the rest of the market?
I think that what Holacracy enables is scalability. I believe that organisations who use Holacracy are gonna scale faster than their competitors. The big thing within the company is usually the span of control and this is not an issue in companies that use Holacracy. It lets organisations and business processes around them develop and validate much faster. In lean you have the build, measure, learn cycle for developers. Holacracy enable the same process but for a company. With the world evolving at an exponential speed, there is alway an opportunity to learn and improve. If your company doesn’t grab this opportunity, it’ll cease to exist.
Could you give me some kind of example that demonstrates improved scalability?
One of the people made a nice comment after one of our governance meetings. He said ‘this is the third time when we had a radical reorganisation of the company, and this time no one noticed it. This time the change doesn’t invade our everyday work, it just empowers us to work better’. If we were having an ordinary system and we wanted to introduce a major restructuring it would stop the entire team, it would be a major thing for people to adjust. This time no one complained about a missing circle, changed structure etc. This is just an example and it shows how much faster the adoption rate of a change is within a company that uses Holacracy. In today’s world you need to have an organisation that adopts really fast.
Is there something else that you think has changed in your work?
I feel that Holacracy has made me much more effective, it made me conscious of what I do for our organisations. When I come back from several weeks of holidays and there was nothing waiting for me, well maybe this is a sign that I’m not needed here as much as I thought I am. Why do I even have a Lead Link role? Someone else may fulfill it better. In the meantime I can use my time and energy in the parts of my company abroad that are now in the starting phrase. I’m much more needed there.
What is the main thing you want to see in the upcoming months?
I’d love to see people become even more entrepreneurial and I’d like us to adopt the system fully within both companies. Looking at the current adoption rate, we will be ok here 🙂