Organise without managers. A dream that many seem to nurture. A few months ago, I already wrote a post with what I thought was a thought-provoking title: do we still need managers? The answer I tried to give back then was that we certainly need proper management, but this does not automatically equate to keep the old hierarchy of managers. The debate about organising without managers is not new, is getting more and more inputs. But one of the critical questions has always been, is it possible to scale a manager-less organisation? The issue arises because most of the cases that emerge about companies without managers are often related to small companies or start-ups: Buffer, Morning Star Farms, Valve Software.
Can manager-less models scale?
Joost Minnaar, from Corporate Rebels, has published a long but fascinating post on the topic, analysing how large organisations can survive (or rather succeed) without multiple layers of middle management. This study is part of his PhD study, so it is still work in progress, but the article is very detailed and well supported with research and information. He has looked at cases such as Haier, W.L. Gore and Buurtzorg, all large organisations.
The first conclusions seem to point in the following directions:
- The strategy is the domain of small top-management teams who define, promote and guard long-term organisational-wide objectives and internal cultural norms.
- The organisational structure seems to be based on a “network of teams“, around self-organising teams with end-to-end responsibility.
- Employees allocate tasks and roles based on voluntary and self-selected commitments and consensus decision-making, often supported by natural leaders.
- There are clear rules of the game to coordinate work, and employees do so either via personal contacts or through digital tools.
- Beyond intrinsic motivation, employees are motivated by profit-sharing and shared ownership programs.
Interestingly enough, these initial findings seem to point to a system thinking/cybernetic model developed in the 1950s by Stafford Beer and called the Viable System Model (more on the model here).
Organise without managers seems therefore possible also at scale. And the ingredients seem not to be extremely complicated. Above all, it appears that there is a strong sense of intentionality in not creating useless management levels. There is also a strong focus on creating consistency across all of the levels in the organisation.
Organise without managers: not everybody agrees.
So what is that the detractors of this approach seem not to get? For example, in an article from Gallup on the Zappos case, the author links the absence of management with lower employee engagement.
Employees require more than a self-established job description; they want someone to talk with them regularly about their responsibilities and progress. The most basic of employee needs, clarity of expectations, is vital to performance.Brandon Rigoni and Bailey Nelson, The No-Managers Organizational Approach Doesn’t Work
Another issue that needs to be brought in focus on is structurelessness, an element already identified in the 1960s by Jo Freemen, who was analysing women’s liberation movements. Although egalitarian and democratic structures have many benefits, she pointed out, structurelessness easily “becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others”. An element that emerged, for example, in some of the issues that arose at Valve.
The question is that all the five elements identified by the research of Joost are prone to become a negative burden for an organisation if not aligned properly. Here some examples collected from the many critiques available.
- The strategy often can become the domain of a single leader with a strong personality and “dictatorial” style. Steve Jobs, Elon Musk are perfect examples of this…
- A network of Teams exists in many organisations anyway. Most projects get done this way. But these are generally on top of the traditional work.
- Self-organisation can work where teams share similar skills (for example, in Buurtzorg team components are all nurses), where instead there is the need to have knowledge-specific roles, issues can arise.
- It takes time for people to learn how to coordinate work with others. Without people dedicated to coordinate to some degrees, the organisation will be prone to duplicate efforts…
- Motivation needs constant feedback and recognition; profit-sharing and peer-support are not enough…
But are these all valid? I think more research is required.
Some level of leadership is needed. The question is how much?
The one last aspect I’m very interested in is how many managers do we need then. Organise without managers doesn’t mean eliminating all levels of managers.
Someone needs to be held accountable for the firm’s actions – the buck has to stop somewhereNicolai Foss and Peter Klein, No boss? No thanks
The question is: how many levels are “optimal”? I think this is where the big battle will continue in terms of research. Systems Thinking can probably support in terms of modelling, and holistic approaches to change as well can facilitate the transition. However, we need to remember that this is not a venture to remove all managers: in too many organisations these roles also hold critical skills required for the value delivery of the organisation.
And you? What do you think about the sustainability of less middle managers in your organisation?
[…] need to teach Followership by ensuring we focus on the many and not just on the few. Thanks to flat organisational models, it will be easier to give leadership opportunities for more people, and we can do so only by […]
[…] chapter about Management. The author interrogates herself on the same topics we’ve just seen in my post about the research about eliminating middle management layers and goes on in the analysis of Management 3.0. She answers that there needs to be a precise […]
[…] often, people tend to communicate by following hierarchy lines, which creates slowness and what we all know as bottleneck effects. People should be entitled to […]
[…] which often limits the connectivity. In a way, this book is one of the first that advocates for fewer management levels to improve […]
[…] lot of consistency with my own thinking about being more Human-Centric. And many concepts like the manager-less organisation can truly be inspired in their […]
[…] many ways, the question seems to be around if we need Managers as roles, or if we need Management as an activity. Very few questions the second, as the need too management […]
[…] extent, they tend all to challenge the traditional hierarchical organisational structures, often challenging the role of (middle) management, as well as some artefacts that are more typical of bureaucracies. They also tend to focus more on […]
[…] In this video, John Kotter had the opportunity to talk with several senior executives about large-scale change. In it, he demonstrates the differences between the hierarchy and the network, the role of the guiding coalition in the latter, and how both structures can work in parallel. An interesting perspective also in light of what we discussed in terms of Networking Skills, and the changing roles of management. […]
[…] is, for sure, merit in trying to diminish the levels of middle management in most organisation and to flatten the structure (Minnaar, 2019). But be careful, […]
[…] code started by Laloux. More Humanocracy. More Unbossing in action. Fewer management levels. The application of different ways to get things […]