Organise without managers: is it possible at scale?

Organise without managers: is it possible at scale?

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: BufferMorning Star FarmsValve 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 HaierW.L. Gore and Buurtzorg, all large organisations.

The first conclusions seem to point in the following directions:

  1. The strategy is the domain of small top-management teams who define, promote and guard long-term organisational-wide objectives and internal cultural norms.
  2. The organisational structure seems to be based on a “network of teams“, around self-organising teams with end-to-end responsibility.
  3. Employees allocate tasks and roles based on voluntary and self-selected commitments and consensus decision-making, often supported by natural leaders.
  4. There are clear rules of the game to coordinate work, and employees do so either via personal contacts or through digital tools.
  5. 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).

How to Organize without Middle Management. Summary of the findings by Corporate Rebels
Fig. 1 How to Organize without Middle Management. Via CorporateRebels

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.

  1. 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…
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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…
  5. 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 somewhere

Nicolai 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?

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