During my desultory post-graduation years in San Francisco, I lived in a big duplex with three roommates. We had bands, fledging writing gigs and other financially unpromising passions, until one of us threw over la vie bohème to work at a consulting firm. We teased him mercilessly for using nonsensical catchphrases like “think outside the box” and for getting a job telling other people how better to run their companies when he’d never actually run a company himself. In the years since, he started an airline in a foreign country, and everyone else began talking about thinking outside the box, too.
Management theory is the philosophy of the corporate class, who are more or less the ruling class in contemporary America. It’s surprising, then, how little attention the rest of us pay to what corporate leaders say to each other about what they do. True, a lack of interest in managementese is understandable, because who even knows what these people are talking about as they spill vast cloud banks of vaporous words across the landscape? To read Brian J. Robertson’s “Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World” is to sled through abstractions, euphemisms and neologisms (“energizing roles,” “processing tensions” and so on), wondering what any of it has to do with making a living by providing goods and services to a market.
“Holacracy” is particularly noteworthy, though, because it does offer a substantively new way to run a corporate enterprise, one that is already famous for requiring difficult readjustments in the handful of companies that have tried it. Zappos, the online shoe retailer, and Medium, a blend of publisher and social blogging platform, are two of the most prominent organizations to use holacracy, and the bumpiness of Zappos’ conversion has received a good amount of press. Reporters have described the new system as “no job titles, no managers, no hierarchy,” and a whopping 14 percent of Zappos’ workforce took a buyout rather than adapt to holacracy’s arcane system of circles within self-organizing circles and multiple, shifting “roles” assigned to each employee.