Posted by: beckbamberger | December 18, 2012

Bosslessness: Fluff or Fortune?

Bosslessness: Fluff or Fortune?

Could it actually be? Are we on the verge of a colossal culture change in the workplace? National companies like Morning Star, SEMCO and W.L. Gore have tried and tested this workplace structure with great success but does this model have utility across the board?

How does it work?

As it stands, bosslessness is a seemingly straightforward concept–a workplace in which there is not one seeded head hauncho but rather, a collective governing group comprised of the employees of a company.  Tasks are self-generated and evaluations are left to the group.  Domestically, Morning Star makes this work via a mission that “envisions an organization of self-managing professionals who initiate communication and coordination of their activities with fellow colleagues, customers, suppliers and fellow industry participants, absent of directives from others.” Similarly, W.L Gore, based in Delaware and ranked frequently as company with a great work environment, employs 9,000 people in 50 locations around the world.  When management researcher Gary Hamel visited the company he initially envisioned a bossless company to be a management “cyborg,” devoid of all the traditional trappings of creating success in the workplace.  What he came to realize was that “Gore was deeply human…and [their] management model seemed wacky only because [we have] grown accustomed to the inhuman practices that predominated more in other companies.”  So is this model applicable in all businesses across the board? Many beg to differ.

Featured Flaws

By and large, Americans value individuality but this ideal seems to miss the mark when it comes to the workplace.  Monday through Friday, the majority of employees are arguably zombies pushing paper, ideas and themselves from point A to point B.  The majority of these employees are looking to be led – looking to leave at the end of the day having done the least to garner the most.  The problem isn’t the idea of bosslessness, in theory it seems legitimate.  The problem with bosslessness is our workplace culture of apathy; we are not ready to work hard enough to make this structure successful.

And what about the psychological truism of ‘group think?’  This is another marked flaw of a bossless work environment.  Arguably, the only way to protect against a group thinking and making decisions in a way that discourages creativity and individual responsibility is to have quality control in the form of a boss or CEO.  There is simply too much at stake in business to allow employees to self govern without having it all potentially fall off the deep end.

The Value

The current workplace may be filled with generations of uninspired people who work 9-5 in corporate positions but the younger generations are standing up to this antiquated model.  Locally in San Diego, young people are creating a future that fits their standards, one that has meaning and value and allows them to bring their flare, individuality, leadership and expertise to the table.  At San Diego State University, students created a major for entrepreneurial management. Imagine that. A profession that many imagine as utilizing intrinsic ability rather than a background in higher education, is now finding its place in academia.

A monumental value of a bossless workplace is the creation of unprecedented creativity.  When there is no boss who determines your fate in financial stability, a major part of today’s society, the fear of being wrong and going against the grain is completely removed.  Ken Robinson, a very popular TED talks speaker (www.TED.com) asserts that as we age our creativity lowers as a result of the incredibly structured society we live in.  Children, who have yet to be pegged into a bracket of society, have the highest levels of creativity as outlined in a 1968 longitudinal study. In this study 1500 kindergarteners were tested on their ability to think divergently, a major aspect of creativity.  In their first test, 98% scored in the category of exceptionally creative.  Interestingly, as the test was retaken 5, 10, 15 years later, the level of creativity began to diminish drastically.  Perhaps inviting groups to break out of the hierarchal structure that is so pervasive in our society will bring us back to our roots of creativity.

How do we do it?

  • A major way to allow groups and individuals to succeed under a bossless structure is to increase mutual accountability of individuals to the overarching mission of the company as well as to one another.
  • When information flows freely and more people feel included, productivity grows.  Google for example uses the “snippets system” where employees log what they’ve completed to date and what they plan on tackling as they move forward.  This information is stored in a public place and automatically distributed throughout the company.
  • Look at this as an opportunity for culture change and anticipate gears to turn organically.

Wiggle Room

Not ready to jump ship and scrap it all?  Many successful companies have taken note of the value of removing hierarchal structures in certain aspects of the work place. For example, Netflix, who employs 900 people, allows employees unlimited vacation. Co-founder Reed Hastings says this model requires mature, responsible employees who care about high-quality work. Also, Adobe has scrapped yearly performance reviews in favor of more real-time feedback from managers.

Do you see value in operating in a bossless work environment? Would you adopt this completely or opt for baby steps instead?

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