team

Ever imagine a workplace with no job titles and no bosses? Your dream isn’t as far away as you think.

Momentum is growing for a new kind of organizational structure that replaces traditional bosses with "self-directed" work teams. These flatter structures are designed so that each team member is accountable for a specific task, type of work, project or result, depending on need. Success isn’t measured by an individual’s achievement, but rather by how colleagues value that team member’s contributions.  

In the self-directed team structure, job titles, rules and permission are rendered almost meaningless. The concept of a manager changes from that of an all-knowing expert to that of a coach and facilitator.  Executives don’t lose control over strategies or direction, but the teams decide how best to implement them--especially since, in many cases, the teams, not the bosses, are the most familiar with the product, process or customer.

Online shoe retailer Zappos has now spent a year implementing a self-managing structure called “holacracy,” which asks employees to follow a constitution that aligns with core values, such as a commitment to customer service. Advocates say these teams allow workers to function as if they are co-owners who have a stake in the company’s success.

What may seem like a radical, social innovation isn’t the invention of rule-breaking tech or creative companies.  

“It’s not a fringe idea. It’s not untested,” said Chuck Blakeman, a Denver-based leadership and culture consultant and author of “Why Employees Are Always a Bad Idea.”

In what Blakeman calls the “Participation Age”, company executives must realize that being an unquestioning, childlike employee is stifling. Those that trust in adult behavior will see employees become self-motivated because people naturally want to be productive and engaged.

The model also has gained traction even where large numbers of employees would seem to require more intensive management. Titans such as Google, Whole Foods, Amazon and eBay have been designed to support collaborative, thriving networks, said Rod Collins, author of “Wiki Management: A Revolutionary New Model for a Rapidly Changing and Collaborative World.”

Collins cites the success of Delaware-based W.L. Gore, the 10,000-employee maker of Gore-Tex fabrics, which has for more than 30 years used a lattice or open allocation structure that gives employees more freedom over how much time they give to which projects.

Though the peer-to-peer networks may appear to be free of bosses in the traditional sense, they do have leaders. “A network structure doesn’t have to be bossless. You still need a smart manager for mentoring and to referee,” said Collins, who is also director of innovation at Optimity Advisors, Washington, D.C.-based operations consultants.

Sometimes the boss isn’t who you think it is. Ask employees at the world’s largest tomato processor, the Morning Star Company in Woodland, Calif., who the boss is and they’ll likely say “everybody.”  That shared perspective is essential, and appropriate, in modern business culture, Collins said.

“Today’s smartest organizations leverage collective intelligence,” he said. Group perception can be used to determine compensation, if a new employee should be retained, when to stop a stalled project or how a change in processes could make it a success.

The shift to a self-directed team structure can be quite challenging, said Corinne Bendersky, an associate professor of management and organizations in the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

“The problem is that they are very difficult to implement, especially when you are changing from a traditional, more hierarchal reporting structure to a flat, leaderless or bossless team structure and you’re using the same people,” she said.

The two organizational contexts require very different skill sets, according to Bendersky. “For an organization to make that shift effectively, they need to support the change with a huge amount of skills training, resources and tools to help the employees make decisions, resolve conflicts, participate in the decision-making so that it’s aligned with the entire organization so they represent the right kinds of things,” Bendersky said.

Shifting from a top-down hierarchy to a distributed power team also requires a new kind of culture that encourages unusual ideas, sharing and diverse points of view.  

“You also need people who tolerate ambiguity, who are patient with the process and know that the outcomes are worth the extra effort,” Bendersky said.

As information and commerce move faster and faster, companies may be forced to find a new organizational design that matches the pace of the work and the type of product. “A 19th-century management model doesn’t cut it in a 21st-century world,” Collins said.