As I was cruising different avenues on the internet, I came across an article around Zappos and their disruptive practice of embracing Holacracy. I had no idea what this actually was and my curiosity led to several other sources explaining Holacracy and more about how Zappos is embracing it as a business strategy. According to those at, “Holacracy is a new way of running an organization that removes power from a management hierarchy and distributes it across clear roles, which can then be executed autonomously, without a micromanaging boss.” As an educator, this intrigued me. If Zappos, a huge company, can embrace this concept, can we do the same in a classroom? At a school site? At a district level?

Education has traditionally embraced a very top-down model. Decisions are made at high levels and sometimes without a clear understanding of an actual classroom. Those at the top can sometimes lose sight of the real day to day classroom issues. It’s the same within a classroom. Individual teachers can lose sight of their students as they focus on curriculum timelines and district initiatives. Can we explore this idea of Holacracy? The more I read about Zappos as a business organization, the more impressed I became. They seemed to have figured out how to build culture, embrace creativity and innovation, and value their customers with “wow” experiences. (Zappos 10 Core Values)

In a Holacracy, dynamic roles replace static job descriptions. “This allows people a lot more freedom to express their creative talents, and the company can take advantage of those skills in a way it couldn’t before.” I see some educational organizations in the private sector beginning to experiment with new roles. Altschools has Site Leads instead of Principals. These roles require the lead to spend a percentage of their week teaching in the classroom, keeping them close to the front lines and in touch with their students. I’m sure this builds richer conversations and better school design as they work to create new instructional models together. In a classroom, letting students create and move into different roles throughout a project can allow them to expand their skills in areas where they are weak and truly innovate and grow in areas where they excel.

“In Holacracy, authority is truly distributed and decisions are made locally by the individual closest to the front line. Teams are self-organized: they’re given a purpose, but they decide internally how to best reach it.” What if we flattened our educational organizations? What if more administrators spent more time in classrooms and teachers and students had more input in critical decisions? What if students had more ownership of their learning?

I know that I’m taking a very broad view of Holacracy and simplifying a complex idea, but there are some valuable insights to be gained from making the comparison. In Forbes, The Surprising Reasons Why America Lost Its Ability to Compete, Steve Denning writes about the decline of innovation in business. While businesses may be innovating through cost reductions and efficiency, they are less likely to be pursuing value-added innovations, which can be game changing but are often risky and expensive. This safe approach may raise stock prices in the short term, but leaves us lagging in the global market. Now, replace stock prices with test scores and you have the same thing happening in education. We have become focused on Common Core, assessments, and standardized curriculum and have given less time to the value-added strategies of project-based learning and design thinking.

To conclude Mr. Denning writes that we need a paradigm shift in management which includes:

  • a shift from controlling individuals to self-organizing teams;

  • a shift from coordinating work by hierarchical bureaucracy to dynamic linking;

  • a shift from a preoccupation with economic value to an embrace of values that will grow the firm; and

  • a shift from top-down communications to horizontal conversations.

“The only solution to the new dynamic of the customer-driven global marketplace is to adopt a different kind of management with a new corporate bottom line in which value-adding innovation is a necessity, not an option. Instead of focusing exclusively on short term gains and efficiency innovations, the very goal of the firm has to shift to delighting customers through continuous value-adding innovation.”

Can we shift education’s “bottom line” to be less about test scores and more about adding value to our educational experience for students? Can we embrace experimentation and innovation across all levels, from management to classrooms? Can we delight our students with relevant and engaging learning experiences? Would the concept of Holacracy transfer to education and classrooms? Might be interesting to find out.


AuthorKami Thordarson