I’d like to start with a bold assertion and some crude but nonetheless reasonably accurate definitions: We don’t need management anymore.
Management – a collection of people selected into roles that enable them to tend to processes, assets, people, protocols and deliver predictable outcomes in pursuit of the organisation’s mission, purpose and reason for being.
A self-managed (or managerless) organisation – a collection of people responsible for looking after the assets, capital, products/services, mission, purpose and interesting things to do in making people’s lives easier, better and more fulfilling – and without a ton of bureaucracy, controlism and power dynamics.
We’ve had managers for years, surely they’re not that bad are they?
Management is a 19th / 20th century “technology”. It feels very out of step with work in the 21st century. Just look at the explosion of startups. When people come together to form an enterprise, there’s a growth spurt and then structure starts to form where there becomes order from chaos; solidity from fluidity; and direction from collaboration. And management roles are created. Would people vote for the company leader? Yes and in some cases, this is actually a practice. Would people vote for a small army of middle managers scrutinising their every move? No. Hardly ever, if at all.
Even the military is operating in a much more empowered, self-determined and non-directive way on a day-to-day basis in operations. And arguably it’s the military model that has informed the industrial and corporate model of now. It’s the military which is now challenging that very assumption that you need a lot of management. You need inspired, enlightened and skilled people who know what they’re there to do to and let them GET ON WITH IT.
We need SOMEONE to lead though, don’t we?
The fierce debate on leadership -v- management; the conclusions that you might need both – these are placating arguments to (potentially) a fear of change.
We need leadership. We may not need the same leader all of the time. We have created management as a fixed routine where people earn the right to supervise others. Leaders are different though. Leaders inspire, set a vision, create direction, channel energy, bring light to darkness and get movement emotionally, cognitively and spiritually as people need it. Once we have alignment of purpose, belief, support, clarity; we don’t need managing.
Self-managed and self-organised teams are popping up all over the world of work and have been for a few years now. Management as a science of bureaucracy and controlism over people, is seen as an unnecessary layer within the more progressive and forward thinking companies. Semco, Morning Star, WL Gore – all early adopters. And now we have Zappos, Medium, Menlo Innovations, WD40, Widen, Nearsoft, Happy Training, Oticon, Patagonia, Buffer, Automattic, Palfinger, Boost, GE Jet Engines, Buurtzorg, Dreamhost, Mind Valley, IDEO, ESBZ, Propellernet, Fitzii, Heiligenfeld, Da Vita, Matt Black – I could go on. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear of ANOTHER company who has proven that leadership and connected endeavours is the recipe for success. Engaged people – truly engaged people – who don’t just earn a living; they create a life fulfilled in all aspects.
So can you have this utopian state of affairs outside tech companies and pioneering outliers who appear to like to be different and who have leaders committed to this cause?
How do you create managerless organisations then?
It requires the leader (or leadership) to direct towards self-organised and self-management. Witness Ricardo Semler at Semco or Jos de Blok at Buurtzorg. But once this is set and agreed, then the traps of management and hierarchical structure often fall into place. SO the leader ensures that this trap is not laid out and a more responsive, dynamic, human organisation is designed.
Then it requires a maturity of perspective from the people who make up the spirit, soul and lifeblood of the organisation. A maturity that says “I can be trusted to act in the best interests of the organisation and my fellow humans to achieve lasting success”.
Can we really trust people to manage themselves?
We all know people can be terrible at times. Destructive. Harmful. Inconsiderate. And that’s why we have law and order, punishment, education and rehabilitation. Yet though we are seeing still shocking crimes, we are also at an all-time low for crime. Prosperity and abundance bring their own problems but when things are so readily available, people don’t steal them. When people are educated more, they become less criminally oriented.
Yet people managing each other in a non-hierarchical way is proving more successful in both preventing malevolent behaviours and in building more strengths-oriented ways to work together.
The fabled marines mantra of entering life-threatening situations to save a comrade is “because they would do it for me”. We have a rising consciousness and spiritual belief in each other that management routines can try and create through orders and coercion but simply will not achieve the impact we see where people’s own choices direct their actions.
Is there science and data to prove self-managed theories work well enough?
Choice architecture and behavioural economics are proving you cannot expect people to be persuaded or indoctrinated – it’s their choices that are most powerful. Working with people’s own desires and needs; their energy and strengths and not pushing and reshaping them into something they’re not and will never be is fruitless, pointless and harmful. It’s partly why stressed out people are the product of insane management and battering targets.
So interested in self-managed teams and self-organised ways of working am I that I am researching and connecting to as many companies as I can find. And despite being biased towards this kind of organisational democracy, I am still looking to make a rational judgement and have myself tuned to be objective and impartial.
And on speaking to people who operate in these self-organised ways this becomes really hard. Because they ooze joy, fulfillment, confidence, belief, maturity, energy, positivity and practicality. You get caught up in their utter bliss for what they do and the conditions that have been created around them.
Yet you can still ask them deeply philosophical questions and look for the bumps in the road. There are some and self-organised teams appear to have an honesty and clarity about them that people will willingly talk up the issues and what is being done to resolve them. No-one wishes for a traditional and formal management way again and – crucially for the company – they demonstrate a commitment and a fiercely protective element to the organisation that is palpable.
What does this mean for innovation though?
A commitment to THEIR company naturally spills out into a commitment to innovate and be creative for THEIR company. People in self-managed teams like to keep it human, competitive and impactful. They want the company to succeed beyond their salary paid each month. This is where innovation becomes part of their responsibility to their company. And with no management to clip their wings; channel them into purely operational activities and discourage such acts of unproductive working, innovation has a chance to fly, be tested and make a difference.
Management as an innovation suppressant may sound like an over-exaggeration but in many cases, in talking to people in traditional and self-managed organisations as comparisons, that is sadly the case.
Innovation – in a self-managed culture and structure – is as natural and omni-present as the lighting that illuminates the workplace. No, let me rephrase that: Innovation in self-organised companies, is effervescent, technicolour and downright neon.
The concluding thought then is that if you want a truly innovative company, you should consider going managerless.