Since Zappos decided to turn into a holacracy, we definitely have a hype around boss free companies. Not that ‘boss free’ companies are new, but that a well-known brand and big company is taking up the challenge is definitely worth noticing.
‘Boss free’ is an answer to the problems of bureaucracy, which in the perception of many leads to slow or no decision making and lack of innovation. With the advent of technologies as the internet and 3D-printing it’s easy to create new products and services that reach a big audience almost instantaneously. The case is simply made that our current hierarchies are inherently not fit for the 21st century business environment.
But hierarchies exist for a reason: they are our answer to chaos. Hierarchies make it possible to control the chaos and once that’s under control, hierarchies always have been the perfect way to systemise and rationalise our work. Without it mass production would still be utopia and we would never have achieved the current level of wealth.
Going ‘boss free’ means you have to find others ways to harness the chaos.
Experimenting ways to harness the chaos without a leader
How do groups confront chaos? And is it possible to leave the hierarchy out?
In my facilitation work I often use games in which I ask a group to perform a task without having formalised a hierarchy at the start. Usually the group jumps on the task without making agreements. It starts hitherto, chaotically, frantically, moving back and forth without reaching the goal, gets frustrated before finally a common understanding with a hierarchy emerges. It is then that the group performs the task within a short amount of time.
While debriefing the game, it’s interesting to notice that groups hardly recall the chaotic stage. People remember the frustration but not much more. And once a pecking order has been agreed upon, they recall much more vividly what happened. As if suddenly their senses awakened again.
From the side line, though, the chaotic stage is incredibly dense and rich in changes and variations. At different stages different participants are trying, failing, trying new things, failing again, over and over. They are leading for shorter or longer times, sometimes even longer than the final leader who brings the group to perform the task successfully.
When I ask about this constant change of leadership during the chaotic phase, participants invariably fail to see it. The only thing that really stands out for them is: ‘we didn’t have a leader and we needed one to perform the task.’
The tendency for a hierarchy seems to be deeply ingrained within our brains. There seems to be something inevitable about it. And it brings clarity within a struggling group.
‘Boss free’ companies are not boss free
So what does this say about ‘boss free’ companies? Bob Sutton, a Stanford professor, wrote an insightful post about the whole hype. His conclusion is that ‘boss free’ companies are not boss free. Removing functions like ‘manager’ does not mean there is no pecking order anymore. It just means the pecking order changes.
Of course that could be of great value. Formally delegating responsibilities down the organisation can prove to be a smart move in terms of improving costumer care or tapping into the idea pool of your workforce. What I notice about companies doing so is that they usually move towards an organisational structure with self-managing teams: small units with their own decision power and coordinating closely between one and other.
A great example of this is the company Treehouse. They also removed all managers, but reading the posts by Founder Ryan Carson, you see that there are (quite a lot of) clear rules set by the board and that the teams themselves can select leaders if they wish to do so.
And based on my experience with group games that makes perfect sense. Teams will always do whatever is necessary to get away from the chaos, and selecting a leader is one of the things groups need to do in order to start performing.