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Evolution in Action: from Democracy to Holacracy

The ‘Economist’ magazine ran a cover story last week on ‘What’s Gone Wrong with Democracy’? It quoted John Adams, America’s second president, ‘democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.’ Although the article denounced him wrong it did provide plenty of evidence that this is happening right under our nose. One example is California’s system of direct democracy that allowed its citizens to vote for higher spending and lower taxes on the same ballot! Our elected officials and ordinary citizens are increasingly tempted to opt for political expediency versus win-win or at least negotiated solutions when faced with tough challenges in globalization, education, healthcare, welfare, security and other major policy issues. This has lead over time to unprecedented level of toxicity in all levels of political governments throughout the developed world, from Greece to Italy to France to the United States. Gridlock and paralysis have become the norm rather than the exception. Western democracy, first invented in Greece and triumphed magnificently after industrialization, is now on a suicidal course as John Adams predicted.

To divert from such a perilous fate, the ‘Economist’ quoted the 19th century French political scientist and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville, ‘Town-meetings are to liberty what primary schools are to science: they bring it within people’s reach, they teach men how to use and enjoy it’. Democracy works only through teaching men how to maintain the delicate balance between liberty and responsibility. Historically, the political left tends to emphasize the liberty side and the conservatives the responsibility side of the equation. As both parties become polarized from within, such ‘town-meetings’ happen less and less (e.g. President Obama and the House majority leader John Boehner did not meet 1-on-1 at all for more than a year between end of 2012 and Feb 2014) which in turn re-enforces the polarization.

To stop the snowballing, we must go one step further than what Tocqueville suggested: we must bring both liberty AND responsibility within people’s reach. We are born neither perfect nor hopeless. We all deserve a chance of making our marks on the world and in turn bear the responsibilities of our actions. Is it possible to invent a finer mechanism than the current form of political democracy (one person one vote) to balance liberty and responsibility in conducting our everyday as well as national and international affairs? Welcome to Holacracy. First introduced in 2007 by entrepreneur Brian Robertson, it has since been adopted by more than a hundred businesses and non-profits worldwide. Holacracy introduces two fundamental innovations over democracy: (1) it improves the effectiveness of decision making by shifting the bottom line from people (one person one vote) to purpose (collectively defined through dialogue or ‘town-meetings’; (2) it hardwires a ‘town-meetings’ structure (called ‘circles) into the exercise and governance of day to day transactions in pursuit of defined purpose. There is no guarantee that the initially chosen purpose would be wise or successful. However, its purpose driven and ‘town-meetings’ structured operating system optimizes the opportunity for dynamic balancing, adaptation and emergence of both liberty and responsibility along a natural and evolutionary path, something that our current forms of democratic government are struggling with. Only time would tell if this new form of organizing is potent enough to compete against and eventually replace the still dominant but clearly outdated and dysfunctional forms of government in contemporary Western civilization.

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