My Octopus (Self-Management) Teacher

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Alex Sudheim

26 Sep 2022 Clock 3 min

Voys South Africa is the only officially recognised company in the country that practises Holacracy. If you’re curious about it, herewith a thumbnail sketch. Hopefully it also provides the reader with insight into why partnering with a company whose employees are all skilled independent decision-makers makes excellent business sense.

Lessons Galore

As most of us know, My Octopus Teacher is the singular South African documentary that richly deserved its Oscar win last year. What many of us might not have considered is that the common octopus has so much more to teach us. And some of these teachings apply to rather unexpected fields. 

Take, for example, corporate management. Would you believe that the unique physiognomy of octopus vulgaris is the analogue of one of the most progressive management systems in the world?

Holacracy is the highly evolved organisational philosophy and practice which embraces our individual humanity, autonomy and creative problem-solving capacities.  

The Sincerest Form of Flattery

Holacracy dispenses with the top-down hierarchical management system that reached its sell-by date at the end of the 1st Industrial Revolution. It does so in favour of a self-management model that transforms outdated command hierarchies into agile, self-organising networks.

Instead of waiting for managers to dish out orders, colleagues use their specialist skills, experience and expertise to determine how their specific roles add maximum value to the company. 

It is here where a Holacratic organisation resembles the matchless biology of the octopus to such an extent we could classify it as biomimicry. Quite astonishingly, the octopus has nine brains: one in each of its eight arms and one in its head.

Each arm acts autonomously from the others whilst all transmit information to each other, allowing for complex co-ordination. The central brain fine-tunes movement, allowing each arm greater precision and control.

This decentralised structure allows the octopus, much like the Holacratic organisation, to approach a fundamental aim of design: achieving a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

I can see clearly now the hierarchy is gone.

Golden Ratios

‘So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work,’ said influential modern business thinker Peter Drucker. Holacracy, according to Edward ter Horst of forward-thinking Dutch management consultancy Soople, achieves the opposite effect.

‘Self-management means creating the right parameters so that all colleagues can make independent choices in pursuit of the purpose of the organisation,’ he says.   

And so back to our octopus: the creature achieves maximum efficiency by distributing authority; radically embracing the quasi-autonomy of its constituent parts and eschewing the concentration of control in a single, central place.

Voys has been paying close attention. The different ‘brains’ of the company work best when left to their own devices whilst simultaneously interacting with one another for the greater good of the organism. 

Servant Leadership

It is important to note that transcending ossified management structures and strictures does not imply the absence of leadership. This is the principal function of the ‘central brain’, whose job it is to provide oversight, coordination, inspiration and direction.

Leadership becomes an innate, collective element of the organisation’s culture and behaviour. In this regard, Holacratic organisations embody Drucker’s famous dictum that ‘management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.’ 

While this may be dreadfully fascinating, let’s get down to brass tacks: why does partnering with a Holacratic organisation such as Voys evince good business acumen? Well, much like the octopus, the company is a nimble, agile and flexible creature equipped with a diverse range of highly evolved skill sets.

To prove we’re not making this all up, we also have a nice long list of awesome customer testimonials such as ‘I’ve been waiting two weeks for your competitor to get back to me – you had me up and running in less than a day’ and ‘Voys or nothing for telecoms.’ 

Hearts & Minds

On a more granular level, working with a company composed of highly experienced individuals built of weapons-grade independence, self-motivation, passion and pride is almost always going to get you better results than one whose employees labour under the dictates of an out-of-touch manager.

If there’s anything to the idiom that two heads are better than one, then nine brains are nine times the improvement upon just the one.

Gimme five (hundred).

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