Thinking of going boss-less?

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Gary Hamel’s HBR article, “First, Let’s Fire All the Managers,” was published in late
2011 and ignited speculation in some quarters that boss-free organizations would
be the next big thing. Recently, the Wall Street Journal published “Who’s the Boss? There Isn’t One.”

And, Inc. magazine offered us “Want Happier Employees? Get Rid of the Bosses,” written by the
found of Ciplex, “a full-service interactive agency that helps clients succeed
online by creating award-winning digital solutions
.” The Inc. article
illustrates two things that are wrong with most articles about eliminating

Many of the “success stories” are about companies that are made up of
creative professionals to begin with. Ciplex is in advertising. Valve (profiled
in the Journal) is a game developer. Any lessons that come from those firms seem
hard for other, more traditionally structured, businesses to adapt.

In the case of Ciplex, the article declares victory after “a few months.” The
founder, Ilya Pozin, describes the process this way.

“I realized that the managers, execs, department heads, etc. were getting in
the way. So, a few months ago I decided to get rid of all the layers. Instead of
a rigid hierarchy, I flattened the structure, threw out fancy titles, and
reorganized the whole company into teams.”

Don’t get me wrong. This may ultimately work for Ciplex, but “a few months”
is a bit early to declare victory on a change in both structure and culture.

I’m pretty sure that whatever workplace we evolve into over the next half
century will result in a severe reduction in traditional bosses. For me that
term describes someone who has a permanent position, is appointed by people
further up the org chart, and whose primary job is oversight.

To get an idea of how things might look, I think we need to look at companies
who have been doing this for a while and who are in industries where companies
are structured more traditionally. Two companies that fit the bill are Morning
Star (a tomato processing company founded in 1996) and W. L. Gore and Associates
(manufacturing, founded in 1958).

Both companies were founded with the idea of
doing things differently.
means that neither had anything to dismantle and both could evolve easily.

Both companies are private . In today’s world, where public companies are
driven to pursue short term growth at almost any long-term cost, that’s a

Eliminating traditional bosses is only part of
the story
. Gore keeps
facilities small and puts researchers, engineers and manufacturing cheek by
jowl. Because people support ideas and projects by signing up for them, leaders
are the people who attract followers. At Morning Star, processes like an annual
letter of understanding tie independent action to the needs of internal

Both companies are works in progress, even after
. Some articles state
that Bill Gore founded the company as “a team based flat-lattice organization.”
But Gore didn’t start that way. His first draft of the basic concepts wasn’t
written down until 1967 and he refined them for almost a decade more before
distributing them to Gore Associates in 1976.

One important thing to note is that “going
boss-less” isn’t for every company

, though reducing the number of traditional bosses should work for most.
And not everyone is cut out for working in a boss-less environment.

There’s one last important point. So far we’re
only writing articles about the claimed success stories.

I haven’t seen an article yet about a company that
decided to go boss-less with bad or fatal results.


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