Implementing Holacracy: differences between Germany and the Netherlands

Some of us are lucky enough to do one Holacracy implementation and see, understand and feel the joy, challenges and hardships that come with it. Getting your team or company ready for self organisation is not easy. It’s hard and requires dedication and focus. I’ve been extra lucky, to have been a part of one organisation transforming towards self organisation on two different occasions, holding two different positions, in two different countries. And while my experiences and findings might not be exemplary, they give an insight about the importance of cultural differences and how they can play a part in the process of change.

From Amsterdam to Berlin

When I joined Springest, an educational tech company, Holacracy had only been freshly implemented as organisational structure. After a lot of coaching and learning, the team was getting familiar with all concepts and practicing self organisation on all levels. Because of an investment that had been raised around that time, there were many new hires (including me), who were all eager to scale the company and taste autonomy in a professional context for the first time. Seeing those new Springeteers becoming familiar with Holacracy, while the company was still learning as a whole, was amazing to witness.

Getting your team or company ready for self organisation is not easy. It’s hard and requires dedication and focus.

In 2016 I moved to Berlin for Springest, to set up a second office, next to the HQ in Amsterdam. The German market had been growing steadily and it was time to set up a permanent presence in Germany. Doing so meant that we had to hire and set up a new team of German Springeteers in our Berlin office. It also meant that we had to onboard those people into our way of working, where Holacracy was the OS (operating system) that we were running on as a company. Doing so felt like, and in fact was, a second implementation of Holacracy in a new team.

Initial observations

There is no doubt that there are differences between (some) national cultural variables in the Netherlands and Germany. These cultural differences can manifest in differences in behavior, perceptions and attitudes. It’s needless to say that these differences have an impact on how people work and thus on what management culture and business attitudes are prevailing. A publication from Christopher Thesing, gives us a beautiful visualisation of some of these differences.

While I haven’t noticed all variables during our implementations in the Dutch or German office, I will use them to display some of the differences that I did note in the day-to-day business of setting up a new office running on Holacracy. I’ll go into some of these to briefly show a couple of differences and how we dealt with these.

Fear of losing control – Informality, pragmatism

Both our Dutch and German employees had to learn to ‘let go’, meaning that a big element of getting to work with Holacracy is trusting the system and the process and not wanting to know and control everything. In general, Dutch employees are better at dealing with this. The Dutch are pragmatic, meaning that once the process and structure seem to work, they are able to let loose quite easily. Proved practicality prevails over the need to control. Our German employees were able to let lose too, but especially in the beginning we worked with one less international oriented employees that had a harder time doing so. The trick was not to force ‘letting loose’, but to provide many examples of where this resulted in a positive outcome. By doing so, positive feedback loops are created that strengthen themselves over time.

Appreciation for rules – informality

You don’t need to live in Germany to know how much the Germans love rules. And you’ve most likely met a Dutch person and were surprised by the directness, openness and informality. These stereotypes apply to the working environment too. The approach we used in the Netherlands to let roles find out most things themselves, can become a costly and dangerous affair in Germany. Government fines and lawsuits are waiting around the corner and mistakes can’t always count on external laissez faire. “Ask for forgiveness and not for permission” isn’t a sentence I’ve heard often in Berlin, and with reason. There is an easy solution though: create roles that know what they are doing in regards to the legal space make good use of them. And trust the (experienced) employees you hire and make sure they own the right roles to look over things and give feedback.

The other side is that Dutch employees take rules more as a soft guideline than as a rule. Since Holacracy depends on a very strict and quite lengthy set of rules, this can easily become a problem. There is a practical, non-conformist attitude in the Netherlands, that can lead to challenging situations of taking shortcuts and finding own ways. There is no other fix than to guide back and make clear what the importance and underlying assumptions are.

Status orientation – Calvinistic modesty

Getting a couple of roles instead of a pretty job title can be daunting. Especially when this job title has been hard fought and part of someone’s identity for a longer time. Where the Dutch modesty in many regards (“Doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg / Act normal, that’s already crazy enough”) Germans are used to a more layered society where status counts and can be closely connected to professional position. But what is actually wrong with still letting employees use a job title to the outside world? Where Dutch employees might get creative with transforming their roles into hip and ambiguous sounding job titles, why not let employees who care about status and title, have the title they desire to the outside world? The outside world is not always interested in your organisational structure. In that case: don’t bother them.

Is Holacracy easier to run in some countries versus others?

It’s easy to say that some cultures fit self organisation better. We tend to look at similarities between structures and national cultures and from there make assumptions about that fit. I would argue that this is not true. It’s not as much about the initial fit as about the tools that are used to make an implementation successful. By using the right framing, the right tools and the right people to guide the introduction to Holacracy, any company can use this as an operating system. 

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