My good friend Josh Allan Dykstra recently wrote a piece called The Future Of Managers, Is No Managers in which he gives 3 reasons that self-management principles haven’t yet taken hold.

  1. We don’t think of self-management as an actual “structure.”
  2. We think this idea is new and hasn’t been proven to work
  3. We’re terrified of the idea of an organization without managers/leaders

Josh’s first two points are perception problems that stop the majority of organizations from considering self-management. These doubts are reinforced by the business media as they pick over Tony Hsieh’s challenging adoption of Holacracy* at Zappos.

The last problem though, is more about the implementation of self-management. Once you’ve decided, how do you get it to take hold? It’s obvious that managers are terrified of a self-managed organization. They have something to lose; their management job! And the prestige and power that comes with it. It’s less obvious that employees also resist self-managed organizations for three, subtle, reasons.

One – People Have Expectations

Most people have spent their lives working for managers. People are completely used to working for managers, so when they take a job they EXPECT to have a manager. At a company like Zappos, every employee chose to work for an employer who had managers. Changing to a self-managed organization challenges a fundamental expectation that employees have a manager. Inertia of expectations creates resistance.

Two – Managers Serve A Purpose

I was talking about management over coffee with a friend. He described a situation where there was a supervisor who had some full-time employees and some interns. It was common for the full-time employees to tell the supervisor when the interns weren’t pulling their weight. The manager was a bufferfor difficult conversations. Take the manager out of that situation and the full-time employee has to raise their performance concerns directly with the interns. Uncomfortable! Managers are a comfortable buffer for employees. Without a manager you can’t blame poor performance on a manager who didn’t make the right decision, or give enough information. If you have a problem with a person, a decision, a project it’s up to you to resolve it. You’re suddenly totally responsible for your own work. This is the second source of resistance.

Three – People Change When They Want To

Most people would thrive in and would embrace a self-managed organization. But people only truly embrace change when they decide to make the change. It’s like getting fit. People only get fit when theydecide to. Most people will only embrace working in a self-managed organization when they choose to go work in one. So when you change a managed organization into a self-managed organization, for example Zappos, you’re taking that decision away from the employee and that creates resistance.


Three Strikes, You’re Out

Because people expect to have a manager, because managers act as a buffer and because employees don’t opt-in to the change, employees create the biggest resistance to changing a managed organization into a self-managed one. And the bigger a company gets, the more resistance there is : 100, 500, 1000, 10,000 people create a lot of resistance. Supplement employee resistance with other systems, processes and customs within a company that have evolved to depend on managers and you’re talking about performing catastrophic surgery.

It is no surprise to me that many attempts to change managed organizations into self-managed organizations fail or struggle. There are occasional success stories. DaVita embraced becoming a more democratic organization in 1999 under then CEO Kent Thiry. Semco is another example of an establish organization that went from managed to self-managed back in the 80s. 20 year old examples aren’t compelling evidence to swing the masses to self-management.

There are successful and recent examples of sustainable, functional, self-managed organisations. Morningstar, Medium and Buffer are good examples. The key to their success is to start from scratch. If self-management is built in from the get go (or very early in the life of the company) anyone who chooses to work there is signing up to self-manage and be responsible for their work. And the company culture, systems and expectations build around self-management. Medium, Buffer and Morningstar all embraced self-managed principles before they became established organizations.

Self Management Needs To Cross The Chasm

Self Management has a go-to-market problem. It’s a great product with low adoption. Geoffrey A. Moore’s Crossing The Chasm is a good playbook for taking a new product to market. If you’re not familiar with Crossing The Chasm, it describes several phases for taking a product to market to achieve widespread adoption. Each phase has a different playbook. First, you need to attract the visionaries (2%) who help you bring in the early adopters (13%) and if you can “cross the chasm” then the system tips into the early majority (starting 17% of the market) and your product can be a success.

The problem is, we’re still selling self-management to the 2% of visionaries. Yes, there are visionaries in established organizations, for example Tony Hsieh at Zappos.

The target market of “organizations” is simply too big and the number of visionaries too small to create any momentum.

In fact, it hurts the cause to have difficult migrations like Zappos played out in the public domain. It creates anti-momentum.

We’re selling self-management to the wrong customers and we need to change tack and re-focus our efforts, together. Forget landing the elephants and blue whales of established organizations. We need to go to the shore, find the amoeba and proto-organisms, and help them grow and succeed with self-management baked in from the start. If self-management allows creativity, ownership, engagement and agility to thrive, these companies will grow and evolve quickly. As they grow, succeed and become dominant in their market, so do the principles of self-managed organizations. As the old organizations die, replaced by our new self-managed organizations, what was once an oddball idea in the land of hierarchical organizations is as normal as an org chart is today.

Fellow practitioners. We need to play the long game. Let us re-focus our efforts on small companies who aim to grow big. Invest all our time and energy in tech startups and socially focused companies who already want to change the world and are lead by the visionaries of our age. That’s a market we can cross the chasm in and win. If we these companies change the world, their influence will help us change how organizations are managed.

Or perhaps more appropriately not managed.

* If you’re not familiar with Holacracy, it’s a robust system for a self-managed organization.

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