Refund denied. Helpful Hints for Dealing with Holacracy One.

University of the Pacific Arthur A. Dugoni Sch...

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Just back from a disappointing one week Holacracy One (HO) certification program that promises participants will
• Explore the leading-edge of human organization
• Learn new “sense and respond” habits and practices
• Learn how to “facilitate beyond ego”
• Practice, practice, practice their method!

It doesn’t promise to ruthlessly crush others as needed, yet that is the practice. Ruthless crushing is a term the company uses to describe behaviours needed to facilitate beyond the ego, to facilitate on the edge of now. (It’s in their notebook, Day 1, page 4.)

In the pre-session email, they write “You will be joining a diverse and experienced group of change agents to explore, play, and learn together, and based on past experience you can expect a very dynamic and engaging week.”

They don’t deliver – the training is less than engaging and is painful.  (BTW in retrospect I find the experience rather funny.) I asked for my money back – they said, no, and, give us your feedback so we can make the program better.  Is this parity? I paid $3,495.00 for the 5-day program, $295.00 for their Experiential Workshop, and the hotel and travel costs exceeded $1,500.00.   I already stated I didn’t receive full value from the workshops and they wanted me to give them more. What a hoot!

Workshop Theme

The main purpose for this program is for participants to become beginners in HO’s system.  What follows are confusing days in which the HO mantra to ‘ruthlessly crush others when needed’ comes to life.  I gotta tell you, when ruthless crushing came up on Day 1, the whole room quivered and people recoiled. It affected the class for the rest of the week.

Before going further it’s important to tell you that HO is introducing a new paradigm they believe organizations can benefit from. If they use it, HO says, it will enliven their evolutionary purpose. Got that?  If you are a Ken Wilbur fan you will likely be attracted to attend this training. 90% of the people in the room knew  his Integral theory.  In fact, Wilbur mentions holoarchy in his writings and lectures.  HO is leveraging Integral theory for organizational development purposes and to embed their software subscription services and systems all over the world. Ka-ching.

Ruthless crushing, they say, serves to enliven the soul of an organization to fulfill its evolutionary purpose because it gets egos out-of-the-way. They don’t mention this in their pre-program literature, maybe they should. (They also do not provide terms of their refund policy or any interest in customer service or satisfaction. It’s best if you are going to enroll in this program to negotiate that upfront. I don’t want you to have to go through what I did when I asserted my consumer rights, which they are choosing to ignore.  Long story.  See the other posts…)

Program Delivery

The instructor, Brian Robertson, who is also the software entrepreneur behind HO, reads through ppt slides, talking at the group point-by-point 80% of the time.  Few slides have pictures or models.

Many of the terms used, i.e. evolutionary purpose, holding a space, deep wisdom, being present, showing up, are not defined nor explained.  Other content is similarly filled with unexplained abstractions and concepts; practical examples are hard to come by.

Inconsistencies occur between the HO promise and its program delivery in other areas.  They hold true to the ruthless crushing and don’t follow through on nimble adaptation to the environment as described in their Sense and Respond dictum. In our workshop one participant spoke up about a frustration, and no offer of a course correction came and no facilitative question was asked to help reduce it.

Course Design

There is a science and art to course design and delivery and this program lacks discipline.  The 5-day experience is an endless flow of information without benchmarks, gauges or reviews to solidify the learning.

In HO’s program, they do what feels right rather than what good adult learning research suggests. Robertson is unable to provide theoretical underpinning for the approach they use, says it’s been affirmed by others as a good practice for transformative learning and he does not offer solid evidence other than his word to support his claim.

(An aside – I went to this program with full faith, confidence and trust in Brian to deliver a program that smacked of his intelligence and forethought.  Incrementally that trust eroded, can you tell?)

Workshop participants have differing levels of familiarity with the HO and Integral worldview and  processes walking in to the room.  This not addressed in the design; there is no leveling to provide a safe environment for experimentation with new thinking. In retrospect, it’s highly entertaining that the core principle’s of ‘what is a holon and how does it show up in our system’ is not mentioned, it stays hidden from anyone who is unfamiliar with Integral theory.

Other than the daily review of the agenda for that day, there are no overt relationships made between the modules that seamlessly blend from one to the next to the next in an ongoing flood. I drowned and so did some of my classmates. We were awash in psychobabble that, if handled correctly, could have made some real sense.

The workshop – what to expect

  • A few fast-paced complex exercises occur that are not set up for learning.  Brian tells us we are being thrown into the water (metaphorically) to find out how to swim using new behaviours and attitudes.  It’s a total hoot that while flailing to use new principles, specific directions are given for the right behaviour.  So get this – it’s a new paradigm, there are new rules and you have to follow them blindly and strictly.  Why?  Because we must trust the process. Brian says it works.
  • The processes are shared in a confusing manner, directions are ambiguous on purpose. Brian tells us that he expects us to fail, so he has to make sure to set us up for that. Failing. Yah.
  • Equally entertaining is their practice of having novices give feedback to other novices on their performance without the instructor providing key points or reminders on how to give meaningful feedback.  Why this is funny is that many feedback comments point out what is wrong, rather than what is done right according to the new rules, by people who don’t really know them.
  • Regardless, the exercises’ debriefing does not extend for the learner to make application of the new knowledge into his or her own situation. Some asked for an opportunity to talk about how they would apply the learning, and that conversation comes days later.  The application conversation is scheduled for Day 5, and when it occurs, participants are warned not to try doing the processes on their own, no.  Best to have someone from HO help there as their guide. Ka-ching.
  • We know from the literature that adult learners tend to take errors personally and are less likely to risk learning and using new learning without being assured of psychological safety.  There is no safety net here, unless participants bring their own (which is not mentioned as something to bring along in the HO pre-workshop literature).
  • Participants’ values and beliefs are challenged without mechanisms in place to process the transition to a new way of thinking and acting. “Do as you are told” is the overriding theme, “it’s good for evolution when you do”.  According to whom? Oh, right. Brian. He who has no proof.
  • No anchoring of main concepts occurs other than through Brian’s restating and modeling guiding principles. Here are the ones for facilitating beyond the ego.
  1. Focus on the aim and hold the process as sacred
  2. Invite people to take care of themselves
  3. Ground in something beyond the people
  4. Rigidly stick to the process when needed
  5. Ruthlessly crush others when needed
  6. Have the wisdom to see how this is truly helpful (notebook, Day 1, page 4 I’d post a screen shot if it weren’t copyrighted material)
  • HO doesn’t walk its talk 100%. Brian did numbers 1, 3, 4, 5 and maintains 6 likely as a mantra to guide his actions, as might the other HO people in the room (there were 2 besides him). Number 2 though is missing. No overt invitation for participant self-care is offered during the program, nor are strategies offered to help participants make the leap into using this new (to them) system.
  • Brian repeats the same phrases again, and again and on their first mention, provides little space for participants to discuss of their impact and influence.  Learning, it seems, is assumed to occur by Brian’s using a ‘repeat after me’ process. Honestly, I felt like I was back in middle-school learning French, and  Joey Sunshine is throwing dead flies at me…

Practices in Adult Learning

The University of Hawaii’s faculty guidebook, lists learning assumptions and principles for its faculty. Using varied methods of teaching helps the learner maintain interest and may help to reinforce concepts without being repetitious, is one.  This workshop is repetitious.  Rather than rewording main components of the process or finding interesting other ways to convey them, Brian repeats the same terms in the same order, with the same emphasis, continuously.  That must be his understanding of how transformative learning occurs.

Increasing or maintaining one’s sense of self-esteem and pleasure are strong secondary motivators for engaging in learning experiences. One afternoon Brian uses two hours to show how he organizes his email inbox.  I’m still laughing at that one.  Do you think he really believes doing so would be engaging for anyone but himself, oh, you know there’s a chance that the client group he had in the room (a national marketing company sent 6 high ranking leaders to this program) might have asked for this.  They were engaged, asking questions and the like.  Hm.  Ka-ching.

UofH recommends these as in-class behaviours for instructors.  Use this list as expectations before going to this program and contract for delivery of a good learning experience, so that if HO fails to deliver good learning you may have a better chance to get your money back.

  1. The learning environment must be physically and psychologically comfortable; long lectures, periods of interminable sitting and the absence of practice opportunities rate high on the irritation scale. (It was mostly sitting for 80% of the program).
  2. Adults have something real to lose in a classroom situation. Self-esteem and ego are on the line when they are asked to risk trying a new behavior in front of peers and cohorts. Bad experiences in traditional education, feelings about authority and the preoccupation with events outside the classroom affect in-class experience. (I really didn’t like Joey throwing those flies!)
  3. Adults have expectations, and it is critical to take time early on to clarify and articulate all expectations before getting into content. The instructor can assume responsibility only for his or her own expectations, not for those of students. (No preparation for what the experience is going to be beyond, challenging and tough, is given.  There is no theoretical framework provided to offer safety.)
  4. Adults bring a great deal of life experience into the classroom, an invaluable asset to be acknowledged, tapped and used. Adults can learn well – and much – from dialogue with respected peers.
  5. Instructors who have a tendency to hold forth rather than facilitate can hold that tendency in check–or compensate for it–by concentrating on the use of open-ended questions to draw out relevant student knowledge and experience.
  6. New knowledge has to be integrated with previous knowledge; students must actively participate in the learning experience. The learner is dependent on the instructor for confirming feedback on skill practice; the instructor is dependent on the learner for feedback about curriculum and in-class performance.
  7. The key to the instructor role is control. The instructor must balance the presentation of new material, debate and discussion, sharing of relevant student experiences, and the clock. Ironically, it seems that instructors are best able to establish control when they risk giving it up. When they shelve egos and stifle the tendency to be threatened by challenge to plans and methods, they gain the kind of facilitative control needed to effect adult learning.
  8. The instructor has to protect minority opinion, keep disagreements civil and unheated, make connections between various opinions and ideas, and keep reminding the group of the variety of potential solutions to the problem. The instructor is less advocate than orchestrator.
  9. Integration of new knowledge and skill requires transition time and focused effort on application.
  10. Learning and teaching theories function better as resources than as a Rosetta stone. A skill-training task can draw much from the behavioral approach, for example, while personal growth-centered subjects seem to draw gainfully from humanistic concepts. An eclectic, rather than a single theory-based approach to developing strategies and procedures, is recommended for matching instruction to learning tasks.

I try to imagine how it might have been if HO incorporated these principles into the workshop.  It was my assumption walking in that this was the case.  Me bad?

University of Hawaii’s learning principles:

  1. We learn to do by doing.
  2. We learn to do what we do and not something else.
  3. Without readiness, learning is inefficient and my be harmful.
  4. Without motivation there can be no learning at all.
  5. For effective learning, responses must be immediately reinforced.
  6. Meaningful content is better learned and longer retained than less meaningful content.
  7. For the greatest amount of transfer learning, responses should be learned in the way they are going to be used.
  8. One’s response will vary according to how one perceives the situation.
  9. An individuals responses will vary according to the learning atmosphere.
  10. One does the only thing one can do given the physical inheritance, background, and present acting forces.

Learning principles and the workshop

The workshop failed to deliver on participant readiness (ruthless crushing!), learner motivation, immediate reinforcement (participants gave feedback to each other during the few simulations though they didn’t have full grasp of the material or principles when doing so) and in making learning meaningful from the participant’s perspective.

An example

We practiced the methods a few times on days 1 and 2 in small groups. We struggled to adapt to another way to hold meetings that had many stringent rules for behaviour. Like Bambi going onto the iced over pond for the very first time, we stepped sheepishly into the new consciousness and many received bruises that festered all week long, and then some.

Cut to the chase

HO does not provide a comfortable learning environment.  Customers are continually told what to do and are not invited to integrate new learning with what they already know; they are treated as children rather than as adults.

Expectations of the instructor are withheld, the expectations of the learners are not managed.

Training methods do not engage all four common modalities: kinesthetic, visual, auditory and experiential. To add insult to injury, the instructor reveals an ability in psychological type and there is no evidence of inclusion of perspectives from types other than his own in practice or content delivery.

My experience

Rather than going into the moment by moment minutiae of the workshop, I’ll summarize by saying at Day 3 my engagement in the process and motivation for learning dwindled to nothing.  It was far more rewarding to play Bejeweled and Facebook chat with friends. My enthusiasm dulled, my participation ended.  Apathy took over, my levels of understanding and openness to apply new thinking evaporated.

The more the Brian talked, the less I wanted to be there. When the program closed I felt confused, betrayed, used, crushed.  In tears, I told the remaining group (some left earlier that afternoon) that this was the worst workshop I had ever participated in and I’d be asking for a refund.  Mine was a minority opinion, btw. Or, mine was the only opinion voiced.  What do you think?

I’m a studied professional in the area of inviting people to learn new things, challenge their thinking and adopt new behaviours and outlooks. There are ways to do it that invites and supports their participation.  HO’s workshop does not demonstrate respect for the learner’s experience, instead, it gives Brian a pedestal to speak from for 5 days straight (more or less).

The Refund Part

So, I asked for a refund. Here’s HO’s response:

“I’m terribly sorry you had such a negative experience at the Certification Training, and I completely honor the perspective you’re holding.  However, I don’t think [the company] bears responsibility for it.  As far as we can tell, our training design was reasonable.  From the thousands of people of all different types who’ve come through our events, we’ve almost never heard anything about the design, and to be quite honest, no one has ever given us this kind of feedback.  We’ve thus never had reason to believe there was a fundamental flaw in our training design.

Again, I certainly don’t mean to invalidate your experience, but from our perspective, [the company] doesn’t bear responsibility for it; we delivered as contracted.  We of course want to continuously refine and improve our offerings, so we provide detailed feedback forms, and make use of the input to shape future events.  Along those lines, if you’d like to offer any suggestions, I’d be delighted to pass your input along to Training Business.”

What unmitigated gall. I’m still laughing at the audacity. It surprises me that I am the first to offer critiquing feedback, and it doesn’t at the same time.  Why?  Because after a week of being ruthlessly crushed, scolded and having one’s stated needs ignored or delayed, I wonder how many would have the fortitude to speak up.

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Just as a Better Business Bureau exists to protect consumers, what do you think about a membership organization that offers standards,  badges and protection for adult training?  Wouldn’t it be nice if  customers could be certain they will be treated with respect and dignity in ways that advance their learning before they invest in organizations are assumed to and do not deliver on those practices?

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Take a look at for language and practice of HO.  These are notes taken during conversations with Brian Robertson.  They can be very scary. Btw, at the end of the program, Brian said that HO is an entity and it will grow to take over the world as long as there are people who are working to enliven it.  True!  Man, I felt like I was at a cult meeting.

About marcisegal

Founder, World Creativity and Innovation Day, April 21. Speaker,
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11 Responses to Refund denied. Helpful Hints for Dealing with Holacracy One.

  1. Josh A. says:

    Wow, what a saga. Sorry to hear about it.

    Two quick things:

    1) Your link to the clarifying questions blog has a typo (worldpress rather than wordpress) I discovered when copying and pasting it to look at the blog.

    2) I suspect you find the language and notes “scary” because you don’t understand them fully including their context. I think you would have had to get through the Holacracy training successfully for that.

    Having begun to work with Holacracy as a volunteer for Bay Area Integral, I find its potential breathtaking. I wish H1 would have just refunded your money (seems like such a small price to pay for repairing goodwill), because I hope that you can at some point revisit the system and have a different experience with it.

    • marcisegal says:


      A few points back

      1 – will make the copy change to correct the typo – appreciate your pointing it out. 2 – agree that the potential is there from a content perspective. my challenge was with the workshop design and delivery and H1’s customer service. I’m hoping other holocratic oriented service providers will emerge with their own system to assist the transition for new thinking, behaving, etc. H1 has opened the door for that to occur. 3 – understand the clarifying questions blog writings are out of context and may be scary from that perspective. the scariness of the writings matches the emotion I felt throughout the week in their presence because so little grounding was done to prepare the participants for this different worldview. for the holocratic system to experience success, other languaging is needed to help bridge folk who are not well-versed in Integral theory. 4 – Your comment about goodwill is just plain good business sense. Their behaviour in this regard demonstrates their values, they are walking their talk. be cautious.

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  6. paulreali says:

    Hi, Marci. I support the idea of a “Better Business Bureau” for training providers; perhaps ASTD would be willing to take up that cause. Something along the lines of: ASTD members agree to provide performance guarantees, and to make the terms of that guarantee in writing to all customers at the time of purchase.

    You have been generous to the company in not naming them, but I believe they have not earned your generosity. If you name them publicly, others can avoid being crushed – and perhaps the company itself will have some incentive to take a hard look at its practices. I have little hope for the latter, but the former may be reason enough to name names.

    • marcisegal says:

      Paul – great suggestion to name the company, continue to vacillate regarding my personal ethics. However, I have been writing about the workshop on my fb page complete from the anticipation of a great training event to the eventual disappointment and pain experienced. Would you like to friend me?

  7. Russell Schoen says:

    Hi Marci,
    Ouch! Painful and then to add insult to injury they don’t refund the money – that’s not only a bad training design, that is simply bad business. I think a case study that you publish about this experience and why it was so bad would be invaluable to new trainers and facilitators in any field – and as a bonus, you could ask for comments from the “company” to quote.

    thanks for sharing!

  8. Hi Marcie — Wow, sounds like a horrible experience. Can’t believe a company (particularly an education company) would refuse a refund, especially when you have provided such targeted rational feedback. Maybe you should do a music video like the “United Breaks Guitars” folks (

    As to standards for adult training, yes, there’s an association for that: “The Accrediting Council for Continuing Education & Training (ACCET) is a voluntary group of educational organizations affiliated for the purpose of improving continuing education and training.” Their standards, which include many of the same points you address are online at

    And for those of you thinking about how your company might handle a request like Marcie’s, I’d share that the organization which I work for is in the 7th year of our guarantee: “If any ASAE program, product or service does not fulfill our promise, we will make the situation right or refund your money.” It has been a very successful part of our brand strategy.

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