Why the Dutch didn’t invent Holacracy

Actually, the Germans did……..

A fundamental concept of Holacracy is that it rejects consensus-finding;

… such impractical quantities of time and energy are required to reach a decision that the system gets bypassed more often than not. (..) Even when consensus is achieved, the result is often a watered-down group decision that becomes very difficult to change, saddling would-be innovators with less-than-ideal entrenched structures to navigate.

Brian Robertson in Holacracy – the new management system for a rapidly changing world, 2015.

In Holacracy meetings, people are brutally interrupted when the facilitator smells just a whiff of consensus-finding. What do YOU need? What is YOUR proposal? Whether or not framed within provocative oneliners like “Be selfish” and “Dare not to care”. For those who have been jaded for years with endless discussions and half-hearted decisions, this sounds like music to the ears. Of course, we all recognize the importance of broad support, but can this also be done in a less tiring way and a little faster? It is therefore very striking that this model is popular in countries that have pretty much invented consensus (f.e. in the Netherlands and Germany) The Dutch language even has a verb for this; polderen (the origin of this word has to do with land reclamation, the conquest of land from the water) As a Dutchman I’m aware of our directness and we do not mind hierarchy – we just ignore it.

So, why didn’t we, the Dutch, invented Holacracy? Frankly, I have to admit that the answer came before this question. And that was when I read a case study of a merger between a German and an American company in Erin Meyer’s book The Culture Map. Although both countries are egalitarian, they’re different in decision-making. The Germans are spending a lot of time and energy in the process towards a decision (consensus finding) and when a decision is made, the implementation plan moves expeditiously forward (because everybody is ‘on board’).

The Americans have a more top-down approach; one person makes the decision, and the energy and time is spent after the decision is made in rethinking, optimizing and adjusting the plan. For them, a decision is just a moment in time and perceived as the most suitable solution on that specific moment or in that specific circumstance. If more information becomes available, decisions can be reconsidered, and plans will change. This is in line with the characteristics of Holacracy; autocratic decision-making, striving for workability instead of perfection and focus on moving forward (knowing that after the first step things are different).

And the Dutch? We postpone the decision just that far until the moment we have to. And from that moment on, we will discuss everything again. I’m exaggerating, but …. yeah, we like to do both.

Erin Meyer writes;

Like other cultural characteristics, these different decision-making styles have historical roots. American pioneers who had fled from the hierarchical structures of their native lands in large numbers, valued speed and individualism. As the pioneers spread westward across the American plains, those who arrived first and worked the hardest were the most successful. Errors were seen as an unavoidable and ultimately insignificant side effect of speed. Because of this, Americans developed an aversion to too much discussion; in their view that only slowed them down. They preferred to make decisions quickly, often based on limited information, either through the leader or by voting.

The Culture Map, 2019

So, it is not surprising that an American ‘inventented’ Holacracy. In addition to his Scottish historical roots, Brian Robertson must have been inspired by a fellow American; Patrick Lencioni (with Italian ancestors).  Lencioni disdains consensus;

Consensus is horrible. I mean, if everyone really agrees on something and consensus comes about quickly and naturally, well that’s terrific. But that isn’t how it usually works, and so consensus becomes an attempt to please everyone.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, 2002.

But, as with so many things in America, its origins are in Europe. Holacracy is not an American invention either! (Yep, it’s of German origin)


Between 1850 and 1945 the Prussian/German army developed a form of agility and self-organization after they lost the battle of Jena against Napoleon in 1806 (more than 300,000 casualties) They started to drastically decentralize and place responsibilities and powers at the lowest level in the front line. They called this Auftragstaktik. Soldiers were given a specific assignment with a goal (Auftrag) but had to decide for themselves how to achieve the goal within the boundaries of the doctrine (the agreements on how we do certain things). The Prussians assumed that, if properly trained, their soldiers were professionals who themselves knew all too well what they could and could not do.

This Auftragstaktik resulted in the fact that in WWII the Allies needed a minimum of three divisions and air superiority to defeat one German division. Simply because the Germans had given more thought to what it is like to risk your life in the front line, what role your team plays in it, how important your manager is, how you can learn and innovate quickly, what role staff services play and what your organization has to arrange to increase the chances of survival of your people.

Notice the parallels with Holacracy:

  • Battlefield or the ‘work’ as the place where operations have to take place;
  • Combat unit or circle as an operating unit;
  • Goal or purpose as a desired outcome and reason of being;
  • Doctrine or constitution, domain & policies for smooth and effective operations;
  • Decentralization or autonomy in how to achieve the purpose through doing what’s necessary – even if it’s not your role;
  • Officer in the frontline or Lead Link as ‘an operational role’, holding the purpose of the circle;

Nevertheless, the Allies persisted in a completely centralized control of their army, with everything being worked out in advance through master plans, plans and sub-plans. To put it gently: it didn’t work that way on the battlefield (F.e. 5.2 million casualties among the Allies and 1.7 million among the Germans in WWI) nor is it working on the battlefields of business.

Jaap Jan Brouwer wrote a book about the history and concept of Auftragstaktik (Auftragstaktik en het Pruisische/Duitse leger 1850 – 1945 (Dutch) 2017). But this book has largely been described from a military perspective. The similarities with modern management perspectives are better reflected in the various articles you can find on this subject on the internet. In one of these articles you’ll also find that Auftragstaktik is (again) a hot topic within NATO military circles. The only country that continues to oppose this is … nope, not the Dutch but our former allies the United States.

This article is also published on Linkedin