Bossless organizations can teach you how to be a better boss.
By Vadim Liberman
This article is not about your organization, or any organization like your organization, because you have managers, who have managers, who have managers. That is, you work for a bureaucratic conventional company. But surely you've heard about bossless businesses that have rejected hierarchy to push corporate flatness to its logical end—or its illogical dead end, you might snicker.
Such companies are undeniably quirky—just try phoning to locate someone with a certain title or particular responsibilities. But many are successful, functioning efficiently and profitably, taking an untraditional route to accomplish traditional goals. By establishing a more egalitarian workplace in which employees plan, coordinate, and direct activities autonomously, they say, they benefit from increased motivation, engagement, loyalty, creativity, innovation, customer satisfaction, efficiency, productivity—you name it.
The common perception is that bossless organizations are, basically, consensus-based anarchist collectives that spend weeks debating every workplace detail, more concerned with experimentation than earning profits.
The reality is that they have products, services, customers, warehouses. Some have boards. All have bottom lines. Just like your corporation. They have chosen not no management but self-management.
Some are boutique firms with fewer than one hundred workers. Others are mega-corporations that have chosen to go beyond breaking down silos and erase the entire org chart. Perhaps the biggest is W.L. Gore and Associates, a multibillion-dollar giant best known for Gore-Tex fabrics. As CEO Terri Kelly told The Wall Street Journal years back, “We believe that rather than having a boss or leader tell people what to do, it's more powerful to have each person decide what they want to work on and where they can make the greatest contribution.”
Another enterprise you may know, Semco, shares similar logic. As Ricardo Semler, the Brazilian engineering company's founder, pointed out twenty years ago in his book Maverick, “Bureaucracies are built by and for people who busy themselves proving they are necessary, especially when they suspect they aren't. All these bosses have to keep themselves occupied, and so they constantly complicate everything.”
Now, bosslessness isn't, as some have termed it, a new trend, since it's neither new nor a trend. Apart from longtime evangelist Semler, there's no bossless bandwagon, and even if there were, no one would expect you to reshape your entire structure based on what, let's face it, will always be a fringe form of management. But understanding what it means to manage without managers elsewhere will make you challenge the way you've always done things—and that's a good thing. As it turns out, novelty firms may offer some novel ideas that you can incorporate into your own company without giving up your corner office.
You can't contemplate bosslessness without considering what it means to be a boss these days. At the most basic level, supervisors control subordinates. Some allow their people minor leeway in how—though not what—work gets done, but that's mainly because many job duties now demand skills of the mind rather than the hand. (See “Building Pyramids.”) Even so, an employee can raise an independence flag only as high as a manager decides.
That last word is key. Ultimately, a boss is someone who makes decisions. In a typical organization built on self-management—if any can be typical—everyone gets to make decisions to guide their work. Superpowers held by a relatively few individuals at conventional corporations are everybody's powers at other businesses: No one is a boss; everyone is a boss.
Some bossless firms boast that they're not empowering workers, since empowerment implies that senior management deigns to permit people to make decisions—rather, they, say, such authority is a natural right. Except that, as you know, that's not how things work. That some of today's organizations with missing managers once had more layers than an onion proves that granting worker autonomy smells a lot like what it obviously is—a decision by top management.
No need for socialism debates better suited for a college-dorm 3 a.m. hallway conversation. The salient point is this: Give employees resources to make decisions, and you no longer need managers. “Numerous tools allow today's generation of workers to communicate, collaborate, and crowdsource in all avenues of their lives,” says HR consultant Dana Ardi, author of The Fall of the Alphas. “People today want to work together in a flatter organization.”
At Morning Star, a tomato processor with four hundred full-time and about 2,300 season workers, there are no bosses, no titles, just “colleagues.” Now, plenty of traditional companies these days also call employees by similar generic titles—“associates” or “partners”—but everyone understands that they're still employees with neither autonomy nor major responsibilities.
Granted, Morning Star people have specific roles—e.g., production mechanic or industrial technician—but they're still foremost colleagues, on the belief that if you give employees specific titles, you confine them to boxes, crippling efforts to think outside of them. Other bossless firms, meanwhile, let people choose their titles. “If someone wants to call themself a lead developer, that's fine,” says Ilya Pozin, founder of digital-marketing agency Ciplex. “It doesn't actually mean they lead someone else.”
Morning Star's colleagues must annually meet fellow employees with whom they'll interact. Together, they negotiate mutual job expectations—dealing with sourcing, processing, pricing, shipping, everything—to draft Colleague Letters of Understanding. For instance, you might agree to sort or package or turn to paste or ship X tomatoes per week. Thousands of these pacts serve as a surrogate org chart and create formal commitments between co-workers that job descriptions handed from above never could. As Morning Star colleague Paul Green Jr. explains, “Things function more efficiently and effectively when worked out between colleagues because people know best how to do their work.”
Meanwhile, Richard Sheridan, author of the forthcoming book Joy, Inc. and CEO of Menlo Innovations, a software-design firm, often speaks of how his 8-year-old daughter remarked that Daddy was “really important” when he brought her to work at his former company one day because people kept asking him to make decisions. “I realized I was a bottleneck,” Sheridan recalls. As a result, he's now the boss of a bossless organization. (Ironic, right? But come on, did you really think that no one is sitting atop these companies? More on that later.) The company's project managers, for instance, do just that: manage projects, not people, acting more as team supporters and facilitators than supervisors to whom coders must report.
Likewise, when Pozin founded Ciplex, there were no managers because there were no people to manage. But with more money and more workers came more layers. “I've heard that right when you get to the thirty-third employee, hierarchy starts to form,” Pozin says. “That's around when it happened for us.” (Gore limits the number of employees at every facility to two hundred, to avoid what founder Bill Gore described as “we decided” morphing to “they decided.”)
“Eventually, we found that managers were getting in the way of work getting done, so we wanted to unwind the structure,” Pozin continues. “In a startup culture, there are usually four to five people who all want to meet the company's overall mission. You lose that when you have hierarchy, because people suddenly want to make their boss happy instead. They forget what they're working toward. Now we have no bosses, and people actually give a shit about the company.”
Plus, since employees no longer have to CC for approvals, Pozin went from getting up to three hundred internal emails daily to about five now. “That in itself was amazing!” he says.
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