Holacracy and the Transhumanist Party

EDIT: The post below raised some questions, and apparently some minor misunderstandings which I would like to briefly address. If you haven’t read the post below already, I would recommend doing so before reading the note which follows at its end.

Holacracy and the Transhumanist Party

The Transhumanist Party represents a new branch of the Transhumanist movement, and as such is now taking the first steps in a long journey. Here at the beginning, we have the opportunity to consider how our movement will be organised, and what kind of character we want it to develop. We have a lot to think about, and work toward.

One such issue confronting us is whether to operate according to traditional managerial models (often characterised as hierarchical, sometimes accurately), or something more decentralised and agile such as Holacracy. Holacracy (see here and here for descriptions) is a recently popular form of Holarchy, which is to say a non-hierarchical, recursive organisational model structurally reminiscent of a hologram or fractal.

What does that mean in plain English?

Simply, that we must ask ourselves whether the Transhumanist Party should have traditional “bosses”, or a more experimental and communal style of decision making.

The best answer to that question isn’t obvious. On the one hand, clear leadership, vision, and lines of responsibility are important – and that’s without even considering that certain traditional things like Party Officers are required by law in countries like the UK. On the other hand however, we do need to be flexible, resilient, innovative, and to strongly encourage grassroots initiative within the party. We can’t have a leaderless free-for-all, both as a matter of pragmatism and law, but we also cannot have micromanaging “party chiefs”, or everybody sitting back and waiting for permission or instructions. As is so often the way of things, we must find a way to strike an intelligent and practical balance.

How do we balance leadership and flexibility?

Here in the UK, the Transhumanist Party has settled on a solution. Basically, the party as a whole runs according to a constitution with features required by UK law and the necessities of clear leadership, but each of its six administrative departments operates as a semi-autonomous, Holacratic organisation.

The first thing to note is that the party is required by law to have a traditional party constitution and Party Officers responsible for certain key functions, and we have found the development of that structure to be very useful. The constitution both makes it clear how we will fulfill our legal and financial obligations, and additionally draws the line within which activity may be legitimately considered to be on behalf of the Transhumanist Party. We have taken care to develop a constitution which balances a few simple core principles which define the party, a National Executive Committee to handle administrative matters (more on that in a moment), and a voting membership to develop party policy. This gives us a party that is well prepared against any disruption or “mission drift”, but which at the same time puts many traditional leadership decisions in the hands of its regular members rather than a small group or single leader.

As innovative as this is, it still falls within the broad category of “traditional” management models. The constitution does, however, divide the party into six departments, each led by one of the Party Officers. That division of the workload is partly pragmatic, and partly required by law. Those Party Officers (along with elected members’ representatives and additional non-voting advisors) collectively form the National Executive Committee (NEC). The key thing to note here is that the six departments are effectively semi-autonomous organisations falling under the umbrella of the Transhumanist Party, each of which is required by the party constitution to maintain its own core operating document, and that’s where the possibility of Holacracy arises. That’s because Holacratic organisations avoid relying on a vague, hierarchical sense of authority, replacing it with a constitution which makes their operating procedures clear.

The six departments, and “circles”

The six departments are as follows: (1) Party Secretary’s office, (2) Treasury, (3) IT dept, (4) PR & Campaigns, (5) Fundraising, (6) Nominations & Liaison. At the moment these are just very small volunteer groups – single people in some cases – but we intend to make this framework the basis of all party activity as it grows and develops. Right from the outset we have been keen to encourage a high degree of grassroots initiative (“just do it!”), but are aware that all initiatives must eventually be the responsibility of one department or another, otherwise the party would be wide open to disruption by those acting in our name but who do not share our goals or values, or have our best interests at heart.

The answer seems to be that each department operates as a Holacratic organisation, with its own constitution making it clear how that organisation operates. In a Holacratic organisation the emphasis is not on leaders issuing instructions, but rather on small, overlapping teams of volunteers (called “circles”) which have their members’ roles, goals, and responsibilities clearly defined. This means that volunteers know what is expected of them, but they don’t have to wait for permission or instructions to do anything. Instead they should simply get on with creatively exploring their role, secure in the knowledge that no boss will intervene unless they have broken the explicit, written rules of the circle.

The closest thing each circle has to a boss is a “lead link”, which is one person tasked with ensuring a good flow of information and potential collaboration between the team and other circles, both within and between departments (not to mention other organisations outside the party). The lead link is the person within each circle who is primarily responsible for ensuring that the circle as a whole is acting in accord with the departmental constitution, just as each member of the circle is expected to operate in line with the written terms of their role.

A long journey ahead

From now on, the Transhumanist Party will act as a Holacratic organisation in this fashion. Each department will maintain a public constitution which presents its operating rules, recognised circles, and the volunteer roles self-determined by those circles. People will be able to see what’s going on by reading each department’s constitution, and contact circles directly to get involved. Those six public documents aren’t ready yet, but as soon as they are links will be posted here and on the Transhumanist Party website.

It is our hope that by doing things this way, we will be able to maintain a strong, coherent vision and goals, and yet still have a party built out of agile, innovative networks of teams ready to face the challenges of the 21st Century.

Keep watching this blog for updates, to find out how our journey progresses!

EDIT: A note on criticisms

I’ve heard the suggestion that the organisational model proposed in this post is “pseudo-Holacratic” (which may or may not be a bad thing depending upon your view of Holacracy), and that it implies a lack of trust in volunteers. I do not believe that such criticism reveals any true problem, for the following reasons:

1. Legal realities

The simple fact is that political parties must operate within the legal framework of the countries that host them. In the UK, this means that certain functions are mandated, and the resultant core structure must to some extent be centralised and hierarchical. For this reason, no legally recognised UK political party can be run as a single, entirely Holacratic organisation of the most ideal type.

In my personal opinion that’s actually a good thing, but my reasoning on that count is another topic for another day. Suffice to say that my personal preference is to balance competing extremes in most situations, rather than aim for solutions that embrace one principle so utterly that they completely reject other, equally important principles.

2. True Holacracy and True Scotsmen

There does appear to be some temptation for people to imagine that Holacracy is entirely non-Hierarchical, particularly in some hypothetical “pure” form. This is simply not true, since even the most avidly Holacratic enterprises invariably exist to work toward pre-existing high-level goals. Thus the a priori goal has effectively been set in a centralised manner, and it is only implementation of such goals that gets ‘farmed out’ to Holacratic circles within the organisation. Therefore, even the most “pure” form of Holacracy is effectively a kind of hybrid system rather than being entirely “flat” or “headless”.

3. Loose decentralization, not dogma

It must be stressed that TPUK will not be operating according to the dogma of any external organisation, so each of the party’s departments will only be “Holacratic” in the strictest sense to the extent that they choose to be, independently. More generally, the party encourages a kind of loose decentralization in which certain high-level goals are identified in accord with the Party Constitution, but then the various departments (and the groups within them) work toward those goals as they see fit. I have chosen to characterise this loose arrangement as ‘Holacratic’, and any disagreement anyone may have with that is their business.

4. Trust and political practicalities

Finally, the idea of having a Party Constitution and structure which does not offer total trust to new volunteers by default has been criticised as suggesting a state of intrinsic mistrust. It has been suggested that special mechanisms could be introduced to gauge levels of trust in certain volunteers, supporters or party members before entrusting them with the ability to change certain things within the organisation.

On the face of it that sounds reasonable, but there are at least three issues to address, here. The first is that, ironically, the introduction of trust measurement only exaggerates the mistrust which some might imagine to currently exist. Secondly, it is another sad but simple political reality that activists cannot all be trusted immediately, because some of them may be hostile entryists or simply incompetent. Thirdly, we have enough safeguard against problematic behaviour within the Party Constitution itself, so any additional mechanisms are entirely up to the various departments and circles to decide upon as they see fit. In short, if something is allowed by the Constitution then people are welcome and trusted to do it. If people cannot act in accord with the Party Constitution, however, then they are simply not welcome within the party.

5. Summary

The bottom line is that we have practical realities to deal with, and the model proposed above is the most effective balance of traditional pragmatism and an idealistic “grass-roots” approach to organisation. As mentioned in the post proper, other Transhumanist Parties may not choose to follow the TPUK example, and that is entirely their business. The advantages and disadvantages of the approach we are taking should become clear soon enough.

Holacracy and the Transhumanist Party