Expanding Executive Consciousness

Jeevan Sivasubramaniam works at BK publishers. When BK published The Positive Organization Jeevan wrote a piece in their newsletter that included the description of five unusual organizations. Here are his descriptions.

  1. Valve: The $4 billion dollar technology and gaming company operates under what is called anarcho-syndicalism. Anarcho-syndicalism is an economic theory with roots in the early 19th century that articulates a form of government in which self-organized cliques of labor work together to directly achieve goals. The way this manifests at Valve is that there are no “bosses.” After an endogenous process in which a self-organized committee hires a new employee, he or she is free to join and freely move around any of the company’s myriad of projects. Where Google boasts 20 percent free time for its employees to pusue their interests, Valve boasts 100 percent free time.
  1. Gore:Since Bill Gore founded the company in 1958, Gore has been a team-based, flat-lattice organization that fosters personal initiative. There are no traditional organizational charts, no chains of command, and no predetermined channels of communication. Instead, people communicate directly with each other and are accountable to fellow members of multi-disciplined teams. They encourage hands-on innovation, involving those closest to a project in decision making. Teams organize around opportunities and leaders emerge organically.
  1. Cloudflare:Recognized by the World Economic Forum as a technology pioneer and ranked among the top ten most innovative companies by both Fast Company and the Wall Street Journal, Cloudflare offers services and security for various web entities. Immediately after their first board meeting, Cloudflare founder Matthew Prince and his co-founders made a radical decision: No employee at CloudFlare–a company that now processes 250 billion page views a month through its security apps–would go by a hierarchical job title. There would be no VPs, managers, or executives, only engineers, designers, etc. Prince maintains that checking egos at the door ensures that the quality of an idea–not a person’s rank–always wins.
  1. Morning Star: The world’s largest tomato processor has no managers, no directives from above, no promotions and no titles. Instead, there is the philosophy promulgated by Morning Star’s founder Chris Rufer. More than 40 years ago, Rufer launched a trucking company to haul tomatoes to canneries. The work did not lend itself to the management theories he had learned as an MBA student at UCLA. What worked then for a one-truck business works today for a company that swells to more than 2,400 employees in tomato season. Morning Star calls what it practices self-management. But it is also mutual management: Employees’ decisions about what they will do are determined largely by their commitments to others.
  1. Zappos: In 2014, the well-known retailer eliminated traditional managers, did away with the typical corporate hierarchy and get rid of job titles, at least internally. The unusual approach is called a “holacracy.”  The idea is to replace the traditional corporate chain of command with a series of overlapping, self-governing “circles.” In theory, this gives employees more of a voice in the way the company is run. According to Zappos executives, the move is an effort to keep the 1,500-person company from becoming too rigid, too unwieldy, and too bureaucratic as it grows.

These accounts are unsettling. It is natural to ask, “If such companies are successful, why do we not see more of them?”
I suggest that one of the many factors at play is how we think.   The concept of hierarchy is imprinted in the collective mind.   Noting this, Robert Pirsig once said, “If you tore down all the hierarchies on the planet, in a short time they would all reappear.”
We “know” that people are self-interested and cannot be trusted. We “know” that they must be controlled and hierarchies are the most efficient way to control self-interested people.   In contrast, the above descriptions suggest that people can be intrinsically motivated. They can be trusted to spontaneously pursue the common good. They will engage in self-organization and co-creation. In such systems, “teams organize around opportunities and leaders emerge organically.”
For years I have taught these same unusual notions to executives. Doing so has little impact. They hear my words but my words bounce off what they “know.” So I put them in a simulation in which they can only succeed by embracing the concept of self-organization. As they move forward they experience organically emerging leadership and they find it exhilarating.
When we debrief, they are excited about their unusual experience. Nevertheless, they explain their success using the tools available to them. They use hierarchical notions to tell their story. So I review the gap between their explanations and what really happened. It is at that point that the light bulbs finally go on. The combination of having the new experience and having their old assumptions questioned increases their consciousness and allows them to finally “see.”
People tend not to understand or accept the possibility of self-organization through reading or hearing. They need to experience the unusual reality and then carefully reflect on their experience. Usually it is then that their minds expand so as they can embrace the essence of positive organizing.
How would a “holacracy” vary from the hierarchies I have known?
How would I turn my hierarchy into a “holacracy?”
How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?

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