[This article was originally posted on The Huffington Post]
When I was doing the research for my book, Igniting the Invisible Tribe, I stumbled across an article by Gary Hamel called “First, Let’s Fire All The Managers.” Released by Harvard Business Review in December of 2011 about a California-based tomato processing company called Morning Star, I found the idea of an organization “self-managing” itself to be fascinating, compelling—and frankly, confusing as hell.
How in the world could an organization work without leaders!? It seemed absurd.
But it clearly… wasn’t. Morning Star was apparently a very successful organization where hundreds (in peak-tomato season, thousands) of people work. They’re the world’s largest tomato processor; or in other words, you’ve almost certainly eaten their product. They claim revenues over $700 million per year. And they’ve been working this way for over two decades.
What’s going on here? Perhaps more importantly, if traditional “management” is as grossly inefficient as Hamel suggests in the above-mentioned article, why hasn’t self-management caught on?
Here are three reasons why “self-management” principles haven’t yet taken hold as a viable organizational structure… and why they will, (very) soon.
1) We don’t think of self-management as an actual “structure.”
When we think of organizational design, most of us think of top-down hierarchy. In fact, we’ve been so completely saturated with this idea that when it comes to organizing an organization, many of us can’t begin to picture anything besidessomething that looks like some version of a typical pyramid structure.
What we don’t realize is that, for the most part, the entire universe is self-organizing. The natural world all around us reflects self-management! As Chris Rufer, the founder of Morning Star, stated in Hamel’s article: “Clouds form and then go away because atmospheric conditions, temperatures, and humidity cause molecules of water to either condense or vaporize.” The natural world around us constantly adapts and responds to what it needs in order to function. Why couldn’t our organizations do this, too?
While a self-managed organization does contain a definite structure, comparing it to a traditional organization is like comparing a tomb for ancient pharaohs with a cloud in the sky. Both entities were created by a certain set of rules, but the instruction manuals are completely different.
In self-management, the “structures” are generally sets of principles that elicit (or prohibit) certain kinds of behaviors. At Morning Star, for example, the entire organization is built on two principles: 1) No one has power or coercion over anyone else, and 2) People must keep their commitments to each other. There are other rules, of course, but with very little effort one can see how a foundational adoption of even just these two principles would drastically reshape the mindset of a traditional organization.
As our companies respond to the increasing speed of the marketplace, we’re finding the bureaucracy that comes with a top-down hierarchy more burdensome than it used to be. Our daily work continues to expand in complexity, and in response we are asked to think more creatively in order to boost innovation, but our organizations often seem to stifle the very behaviors we’re being asked to perform! We need to find a way to get the organization out of the way of the work, and self-management principles amplify this ability dramatically.
2) We think this idea is new and hasn’t been proven to work.
Thousands of years of evolutionary biology has taught us to be wary of change. We’re wired to flag differences in our environment as potentially harmful and life threatening, and by default we put things like “new organizational structures” in this category. While this gut response was quite helpful to prevent us from being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger, it’s not so helpful when it’s actually the current environment that’s harming us.
Study upon study is showing how the way we’re working isn’t working very well, and that we need an organizational renaissance at a deep and systemic level. We may think that the principles of self-management are newfangled and untested, simply because the majority of organizations we’ve experienced haven’t used them.
In his new book, Reinventing Organizations (along with a fantastic article for the Self-Management Institute), author Frederic Laloux clearly shows how wrong this misconception is. Providing organizational examples like W. L. Gore, Whole Foods, Wikipedia, Patagonia, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s clear that self-organizing organizations have been practicing these approaches for decades—and they continue to be tremendously successful to this day.
Furthermore, YOU may be the best example of why this idea is actually much more proven than we think. After all, how do you know who to date or who to marry? Who tells you when to have a baby or start a family? How in the world do you function in your life without a manager?
It turns out, you’ve been proving self-management ideas to be quite successful for as long as you’ve been alive.
3) We’re terrified of the idea of an organization without managers/leaders.
This is a completely justified fear, by the way. I have been a student of leadership for many years, and decades of research have proven time and again how crucial the role of a good manager/leader is. So how do self-managed organizations function without them?
A few months ago, I interviewed Doug Kirkpatrick from the Morning Star Self-Management Institute live on stage. In my opening, I referenced Gary Hamel’s article and, to Doug, said something like, “So now in Morning Star there are no managers whatsoever; tell us how you got to this place.”
He immediately corrected me: “There are managers; every single individual in the enterprise is a manager.”
So, how do organizations function without leaders? The short answer: they don’t.
The difference is that in self-managed organizations, people are never “made” leaders by someone else. Instead, they’ve simply decided to lead. Things like credibility and influence and the ability to make a good argument—in general, doing the things that are actually worth following—are what leaders are made of in these companies.
For our organizations to thrive in the emerging economy, a mechanism that allows the best idea to win is vital. The political games and the posturing that happens within our current organizations aren’t creating any real value—they’re not improving the customer’s life in any way. Our organizations must find ways to encourage more true leadership behaviors, and a self-managed approach is one of the most powerful ways to promote them.