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4 Insights from Work Design for Your Self-Managing Organizational Structure

If you're an employee, CEO, researcher, or consultant, here are some insights for you about how to be 1) reliable and 2) adaptive in your work. In an article in HBR, Ethan Bernstein and colleagues dispel misconceptions about holocracies (a popular self-management system used to structure organisations). They also define related terms, and discuss ways businesses of all sizes can apply some or all of the elements of self-management.

Here are 3 take-aways that we gleaned for you:

1. Self- management can enable your employees to fit work to them, not the other way around. This is a fundamental shift in the way many hiring systems are set up where applicants try to shoehorn themselves into what the job description stipulates. Rather than focus on job descriptions and particular people with formal titles, there is a shift to focus intensely on the work itself. It's not you, it's ... what you can do within a set of responsibilities. The dynamic organizational structure makes space for people to trim out parts of their job (e.g. admin tasks) that they don't like to create a whole role for someone else. How do you sustain a sense of connectedness when teams and roles are always potentially in flux? Will employees in holocracies foresee these issues when job crafting? (See #4).

2. Self-management creates complexity, and you need to adjust work design to cope. Remember that the work of organising and adjusting roles within an organization in response to changing needs of the business is complex. In holacracies, this complex work requires more planning and strategy, a deeper understanding of how roles fit with other roles (work design concept: role clarity, task interdependence) to fulfill organizational values through products and services (work design concept: task identity) for stakeholders (work design concept: task significance). The complexity of planning increases job demands, while the facets of work design that I outlined create resources (work design theory: Job demands/resources model). The goal is to offset the additional demands (complexity) with additional resources (software such as holaSpirit to codify and make transparent the purpose, accountability, and decision rights of every role in the organization).

3. To change work design (via self-management structures), is to change leadership, compensation, and more. There is a challenge in setting compensation in structure and work design where responsibilities and team membership is diverse and fluid. What is fair compensation in a holocracy? The dynamic work design within holocracies changes leadership as well. Management roles move from a focus on supervision to facilitation. How do changes in work design of holocracies challenge our extensively researched areas like leadership, goal-setting, teamwork, and power? Or does it?

Key question: holocracy or holocrazy?

Note that adopting self-management organisational structures isn't all or nothing. Facets of it like carving out time from the work week when self-managing teams can work on whatever they think could be important for the organization. Your relative need for adaptability and reliability depends on your product mix, industry, and your organisation (e.g. startup versus multi-national corp). Entrepreneurs running a startup must pivot quickly, and adaptability becomes even more important in industries with high environmental dynamism (tech). In this context, a full on holocracy may be well-suited to the organization's needs. This also attests to the import of work design in entrepreneurship.

4. Self-management relies on a work force that understands work design. Remember, work design is "the content and organisation of one's work tasks, activities, relationships, and responsibilities" (Parker, 2014, p.662). Holocracies consist of dynamic circles that have decision-making authority. Circles are groups of roles working towards common goals that exist (or not) based on organisational needs. A role is a "set of responsibilities for a certain outcome or process. Roles can be created, revised, or destroyed; individuals usually have more than one, in multiple circles." Okay, enough vocabulary.

In a sense, self-management structures enable formalised, institutionalised job crafting across the individual-, job-, team-, and organizational-levels of analysis. In order to do this well, employees need to understand good work design.

And for that, I say let's talk.



organisational structure


job demands

Job design

work design

job demands/resources model

task identity

task significance

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