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.
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:
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.
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.
But are these all valid? I think more research is required.
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?
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