Posted on March 15, 2019

Strategy from a self-organizing perspective? A delusion of control

Today I met two Systemic Leadership Summit speakers at the Holacracy Meetup at the Springest office in Amsterdam. Brian Robertson (SLS 2018), who was speaking at the meetup, and Christianne Seuhs-Schoeller (SLS 2019), who was in the audience. The key topic for this meetup was: Strategy. Below my experience of Brian Robertson’s talk.

Mr. Robertson is the first keynote and what he thinks of today’s topic is very clear: he hates talking about strategy. And so he focuses on sharing why he hates it and how we can look for and use alternatives. “We live in a world that is becoming vastly more unpredictable, and we need to figure out what we do when we can’t control things.” he explains. “Strategy in the traditional sense leads to the delusion of control, with even more disastrous consequences when we, for example, pay people in our organizations based on targets.” When we do that, we judge them for results that are at least partially outside of their control. It’s important to hold people accountable for their decisions and judgements in work situations, because that is what is in their control (someone with bad judgment can still get great results and vice versa). “Goals, therefore, should be used as focal points, not as a way of punishing people.” This process is destructive for your people and for your organization’s culture. So far we know the saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, but apparently it works both ways.

So what to do instead of strategy? After all, there should be some indication, a sense of direction, that’s a little more concrete than the purpose of the organization, so we know what we will be doing. “I don’t have all the answers”, Robertson says. “But I do know what doesn’t work”. Here is what NOT to do with strategy:

  • Don’t tie compensation to it
  • Don’t predict with a (strategic) plan
  • Work with resistance instead of against resistance
  • Make sure it fits purpose
  • Make sure it fits principles or your paradigm of organization
  • Make strategy heuristic, for example, ask yourself “how can we be open to innovation instead of focussing on optimizing our offers to customers”.
  • Step back, look at the big picture and use heuristic guidelines that are innately flexible and agile (because of their “do X instead of Y” type of structure)

Brian Robertson is now ready to take questions. “How do you convince people of the negative effects of targets and why you should not have them, if they are not familiar with the holocratic way of thinking?” asks a young woman sitting in the front row.

“Well, I never start a conversation about something as specific as that, to then try to convince them. That doesn’t turn out well. It’s best to show them the change in the paradigm and speak about it in more general terms. As soon as you mention “no targets” people freak out, because they have no sense of control. Targets, commitments and politics are all about ‘looking good’. So don’t convince people, elicit curiosity instead of skepticism.

The big challenge with this approach is that, especially in big corporations, you can’t change everything at once. Holacracy provides a meta layer, a core change in the way the organization is structured, but it gives no answers as to how specific processes should be organized. This way, tensions automatically come up: Holacracy helps you to work with these tensions, so that things can evolve iteratively.

After this keynote introduction, two presentations follow from Holacracy structured companies. They share their struggles with strategy and how they learned and evolved from that process of creating direction.

All in all, the meetup brought up some very interesting views on what to do with strategy in a holocratic self-organizing context.


What do you see when you look at strategy in your organization? How well is it working? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below. And, as always, if you want to learn more about Systemic Leadership or if you want help adopting a Systemic approach in your organization, please contact me at


Brian Robertson is an experienced entrepreneur, organizational pioneer, and author of the book Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World. He is most well-known for his work developing Holacracy®, a self-management practice for running purpose-driven, responsive companies. He was a speaker at the Systemic Leadership Summit 2018: Systemic Leadership Summit.