When it comes to the way we organise organisations, for the most part little has changed in years. The technology looks very different, some of the practical ‘how’ has changed, but the other stuff…. not so much.
Managers, middle managers, top down, bureaucracy. Teams organised by function, sitting in an org chart, focusing on their own stuff.
Occasionally, alternatives are talked about and tried. Take the latest kid on the block; holocracy. Leading the way with the holocracy movement is Zappos. The experiment has spawned more articles, blogs, conference sessions and opinion pieces since… well the last big bandwagon.
So, is it time to throw away the organisational rule book? To change the way we have always done things? Is it change or become extinct time…. or not? Over to the debate:
In the blue corner, is Tim. He’s arguing for the traditional organisation.
He wants us to gather around his desk. He isn’t bothered about being trendy. There are good things about being in a hierarchy. It isn’t about defending scientific management or old fashioned practice. The best of managers can be inspiring within a hierarchy. You don’t get that within a committee. A good manager can give you focus. They give you over head cover and clarity. Management as a structure is clear. People know where the buck stops. How do structures like holocracy work in the real world, especially the public sector where someone has to be accountable? It is a human trait to like structures. Just like a book, we are familiar with it and know how it works, traditional or not. Have you seen a holocracy constitution? Goes on for ever. Still very few organisations are using it. Management is flexible. There are bad management practices – but we don’t need to throw away the baby with the bath water.
In the red corner, is Andy. He had this to say:
Unlocking organisations through trust and freedom. 87% of people are not fully engaged according to Gallup. Holocracy still has structure, just not a typical one. He’s not a fan specifically, but he is a fan of setting people free and evolving businesses. We live in a world of cycles. Minimum viable product. So we need constant innovation. We need to allow people to contribute as this is what engages them. Power in a hierarchy sits at the top. Ideas might be the bottom. They can’t get from one to the other. Instagram had 13 people but have survived and flourished when Kodak died. Ditto Netflix and Blockbuster. Alternative structures creates equality and encourage information flow. Fluid. Quick decision making. Collectively people are powerful. Every organisation is unique as are the people within it. This isn’t about throwing everything away and creating chaos. Traditional organisations are based on control, suspicion and secrecy. Approaches like holocracy allow freedom within parameters. Lead by example vs manage by spreadsheet.
I’ll confess. I’m a cynic about holocracy. So it appears where some of the employees from Zappos itself. When the experiment was launched, employees were given the opportunity to leave if they didn’t want to work within it. Some 14% apparently did so.
What is the problem that alterative organisational structures are trying to solve anyway? There is much wrong with work as we know it. Pregnancy and maternity discrimination is increasing. We have an abundance of low paid work; workers on zero hours contracts not knowing whether they will get enough work that week to put food on the table. The wages of the low paid essentially being subsidised by the state. There remain plenty of workplaces that treat their people poorly. That are managing
There are things we need to change about how we work. I am just sure that hierarchy is currently top of my list.
What becomes of the Zappos experiment will remain to be seen. My cynicism may prove to be unfounded, or perhaps just a ludditesque rejection of change.
But when it comes to these alternative structures, just maybe the cure for these organisational challenges we are trying to solve, is worse than the disease itself?
As this is a live blog, please excuse any typos!