Please Allow Myself to Manage…Myself
Why shapeless organisations are the way of the future
In the Black Mirror episode, ‘Nosedive’ Lacie’s every interaction is rated on a five-star scale. Her friend’s rate her likeability, the barista rates her banter, and a job interviewer rates her employability. Through augmented reality and an ever-present social- media platform, her societal worth is illuminated for all to see. Depending on her score, she gains access to certain social functions, services, and opportunities.
This may be a spooky future dystopia but it’s not that far-fetched. Already, in our reputation economy, influence is achieved by demonstrating just how damn good you are. Nowhere is this more apparent than the 2-way rating system of Uber drivers and riders.
A similar spirit is pervading the corporate world. We’re only at the beginning of the self-management wave. Here, there are fewer scorecards of who did whom which favour and useless posturing doesn’t overshadow performance.
At its most rudimentary, the self-management movement is about companies that have done away with bosses. Their cultures treat employees like free agents that are encouraged to get comfortable with uncertainty, adopt a beginner’s mindset, and strive to continuously improve.
Through the advice process, workers use their creativity and problem-solving abilities do what they deem best. Women and minorities are recognised and listened to and those employees who once had their voices left out are spurred to step up. Self-management practices are an ongoing experiment evolving over time much the same as people do.
For those who have chosen to strike out on their own, managing one-self is par for the course. You need both confidence and competence to create value and get paid time and again.
Peter Drucker, the father of modern management, urged us to cultivate a deep understanding of ourselves. Whether it’s inside or outside the company (and indeed these walls continue to blur), knowing yourself means you can focus on your strengths and cultivate new skills on the go.
Adopting a beginner’s mind means will lead to asking better questions. Taking a wide-angle worldview will permit more empathy and tolerance. And seeing the forest from the trees will enable you to see the whole system of work as well as your place in it. Together, by rehearsing and refining these practices, we can all make our best contributions to the world.
The Organisation as an Organism
In 1980, a newly appointed CEO of Brazilian manufacturer Semco Partners did something radical. The fresh-faced twenty-one-year-old Ricardo Semler abruptly fired 60% of the top managers. He then took a bigger leap of faith by permitting staff to set their own hours. They could now commute when traffic was lighter in an ultra congested Sao Paulo, but more importantly, it sent a message: ‘we trust you’.
Semler was championing self-management long before it was a “thing”. At Semco, the sentiment “get your work done and enjoy your life” is not a suggestion but a mandate. Semler foresaw that giving people more control over how they work not only helps them perform at their best, it also helps them understand and optimize the system of work that underpins the entire organisation.
This same logic can work with 70,000 employees. Chinese consumer electronics and home appliance company Haier banished nearly 10,000 middle managers and recently reorganised into an ecosystem of startups. Here, employees are seen as entrepreneurs — they operate as active participants hungry to share risks and rewards.
But what works for Semco or Haier will not work for others. Spotify has its unique brew of self-management and so do pioneering Dutch healthcare provider Buurtzorg and blogging platform Medium. The point is to borrow from self-management practices in a way that treats the organisation as an organism — breathing in to sense current needs and exhaling to respond with the required change. This emergent strategy for organising will soon be the only one fit for our increasingly uncertain world.
(Don’t) Throw Caution to the Wind
In 2013, when Zappos made the move to Holocracy (the former flag bearer of the self-management movement), 29% of the company’s staff abandoned ship. This is the type of collateral damage that can be expected. Before implementing a self-management practice, it’s imperative that all workers have chosen to come aboard. Workers will then be less preoccupied with the destination and emotionally charged to ride the new wave.
Another challenge to running a company with no bosses is that you can’t really hide from the truth. With total transparency — your ego, fears, and motivations are all exposed. A safe space to be vulnerable can fuel creativity, innovation and change. But all these feelings can simultaneously be a drag. Sometimes we just don’t want to deal with all the extra office baggage when we get enough of it at home.
A Shapeless Wonder
A shapeless company does not necessarily mean a chaotic one. Amorphous organisations run on a different system altogether. They flex their unfair advantage through their fluid ability to share, decide, experiment, and learn. It’s less about knowing the answers and more about asking better questions.
“Beautiful organisations keep asking questions, they remain incomplete,” author Tim Leberecht aptly puts it. A responsive system of organising is a natural evolution to meet increasingly volatile times. And the most significant shift this bears on business is in letting go of a machine age mentality and celebrating the human spirit in its place.
Like the 2-way Uber review, you know your colleagues are performing at their peak and so you too aim to punch above your weight. And while it may not suit everyone, the benefits of this new way of working are hard to argue against — better engagement, creativity, collaboration, and productivity.
To roll with the times, we can be sure self-management will evolve into another organising model. The companies at the frontier will all adhere to one tenet so simple but all too often ignored: it’s humans that make the business. The ripple effect as self-organising principles spread will be revealed in how the individual engages with work and how society as a whole is transformed in the process.
Propelling us to achieve a five-star rating might not be such a bad thing after all.