26. Individual Initiative

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This page is part of the Holacracy Habits series.

Rosa Parks. Mohandas Gandhi. Steve Jobs. Frida Kahlo. What do they have in common? They loved breaking the law.

It may seem strange that some of the most innovative companies use Holacracy and yet Holacracy is nothing but a set of rules. Rule-breakers don’t usually like structure. Of course, we all like some types of structure. Chess isn’t any fun if players can move any piece anywhere anytime. But, every now and then, structure gets in the way. Games are games. In the real world, things are messy. You may need to drive over those thinly painted lines to get around a fallen branch in the road. We agree.

Holacracy isn’t structure for structure’s sake.

It’s structure for coordinating the work of individuals towards a common purpose. And sometimes, in the real world, the rules get in the way, which is why the Holacracy constitution includes a rule that breaks the rules. It’s called Individual Initiative.

Here is what the constitution says:

“As a Partner of the Organization, in some cases you are authorized to act beyond the authority of your Roles, or break the rules of this Constitution. By acting under this extended authority you are taking “Individual Initiative”, and you are bound by the following rules…”

Individual Initiative is important to understand, because as you practice the habit of asking yourself “Does my role care?” you may encounter the following scenarios.

Scenario #1: Your role doesn’t care about it, no other role cares about it, but you think the organization cares about (remember, “cares” in this context means “fulfills the defined purpose or accountabilities”).

Example: Someone mistakenly gave your company a scathing Yelp review, when they actually used a competitor. There isn’t a role defined for responding on Yelp or any social media, but you login through the company account and respond.

In early practice, when many needed functions haven’t yet been clearly captured in governance, you may see a lot of scenario #1 with people taking actions or projects outside of existing roles. (To help you keep this straight, GlassFrog has the option to mark projects and actions as “Individual Initiative” in the role-selection field.)

Scenario #2: Your role needs something from another role, but there isn’t enough time to request it, or enough time to wait for it to be completed, and you’re willing to do it yourself.

Example: You’ve requested images from the Design Services role for a newsletter you’re publishing this week, but it’s taking too long. So, you decide to take individual initiative and just source some images yourself.

In later practice, it’s more common to see scenario #2, both because the governance becomes more stable, and because people become more comfortable owning their own needs and getting involved, even if another role is clearly accountable.

Of course, it's not a free pass. Individual Initiative is only allowed when the action serves a defined role (one you’re not filling) or the organization (not you personally), when it would resolve or prevent more tension than it would likely create, when it wouldn't spend resources (beyond what you’re already authorized to spend), and, if you need to violate a domain or policy, when you can’t delay long enough to request permission. But there are many situations when Individual Initiative is perfectly appropriate and you can do it without consulting anyone.

Does it fit the criteria above? Does it make sense to you? Then do it.

Yes, the rules are important, but in Holacracy nothing should get in the way of the work.