Pebbles balance

Where have the managers gone?

Freelancers have been working in packs for ages – just look at the way the TV and film industries work.  Those teams are loose collaborations between specialists, and you may well have been pulled in to work this way as an ‘associate’ (as part of a temporary team).

So here you have a group of people who may or may not know each other, who come together for the common purpose of creating something outstanding.  Everyone is pulling in the same direction, working together towards that common goal.

But they are all freeagents.  So how does that work? Where’s the benefit in working for the greater good of the team?  The answer lies in the motivations for getting involved in the first place. Great projects and teams happen when people see their own success is aligned to the success of the project.

Why do some teams work well and some not?

Think about the best jobs and projects you’ve ever worked on.  I bet you are remembering specific people, shared goals, a special something that bonded you in adversity (there’s usually a baddie boss or client in the picture).  Those are some of the best times.

Where it all goes wrong is where an unnatural hierarchy is imposed. Those of us who have worked in corporate life might remember those awful team building exercises designed to get us all ‘living’ the corporate values.  It often became about forcing people to work in unnatural ways and with people who weren’t ever going to be soul mates.

Who’d be a manager these days?

It must be ever more difficult to be a manager in most organisations these days. Unable to use the bullying techniques of the past, managers are forced to use more subversive techniques to keep their flocks under control. At one end of the scale, you have the micro-manager who has to know everything about everything (not exactly motivating for anyone wanting to be autonomous), and at the other, you have the familiar office psychopaths. In the middle, managers who are trying to keep some semblance of order over their rag tag team of people with varying agendas, value sets and domestic set ups.

What happens when the command and control culture stops working? There are plenty of examples of companies that have failed because their focus has remained on trying to manage and squeeze their staff into unnatural roles that they can control, rather than coordinate their talents for the greater good.

There is some research by Professor Greer and others that showed that a rigid hierarchy in organisations exacerbated senior level in-fighting. Professor Greer thought it was a little like King Arthur’s round table, where individual knights had specific jobs, but shared respect. Her view was that key was to maintain good relations by fostering mutual appreciation of people’s skills in fulfilling their closely defined jobs.

As we all adapt to a changing work landscape, where our teams become fluid, less hierarchical and less permanent, it’s clear that a radical rethink about the way we organise people is needed.

Two new models of management from Zappos and Github

Indeed, Zappos, the online retailer has taken this to the extreme. They have decided to structure their organisation around a concept called ‘Holacracy’. It’s a radical ‘self-governing’ modelwhere no one has a manager and no one has a job title. The term Holacracy is derived from the Greek word holon, which means a whole that’s part of a greater whole. Radical stuff eh?

The idea is that the company will be made up of different circles—there will be around 400 circles at Zappos and employees can have any number of roles within those circles. What’s exciting about this concept is that it will rely on complete and absolute transparency. So, there’s no way a command and control culture could work here.

That’s an extreme example, and of course it’s early days. It’ll be a while before we see whether it works or not.

Chris Wanstrath is the CEO of San Francisco collaboration-software company GitHub, and he insists that he only has a title because the rest of the world expects it.

At GitHub, a small group of senior employees handles companywide issues and external communications but doesn’t give orders to workers. Teams of employees decide which projects are priorities, and anyone is free to join a project in whatever capacity they choose. In effect, you have the power to be where you are most useful.

How will businesses organise in the future then?

Where am I going with this?  Well, as many organisations start to organise their resources around projects, and try to rethink the way they work with talented people, we will start to see the number of freelance and contract roles within organisations rise.  It’s already happening.

At some point, the balance between freelance and permanent employees will tip the other way, and companies will be faced with organising staff who – although committed to a project – are not hanging in there for the long term and won’t react to the same kind of incentives and management tricks.

Let’s go back to our loose collaborations between freelancers. Why do those work?  The dynamics within freelance teams are completely different. Driven by a desire to do the best possible job, they seek peer approval rather than management approval.  They will often put aside their own needs in order to support other people in the team, knowing that it will reflect well on everyone in the team.  Without the politics of management and career building, they are free to do the job and do it well.  If they don’t enjoy the job, they move onto another project that suits them better.

Established companies need to start thinking fast about how they will adapt their management structures to suit the independents as they flow in. But I rather expect they might just ignore it and hope it all goes away.

Who is Alex Butler

Hello, I'm Alex Butler and I founded the KindredHQ community and blog back in 2011 after I re-started a freelance career. I LOVE freelancing and I wouldn't swop the freedom, control and joy of working for myself for anything. But I realised how much I missed the company and energy of other people - of having a team around me. So, I got a few people together one day with our laptops, a jar of coffee and some jelly babies and we sat and worked together one afternoon. We've been doing that every week in London, UK since then! I am still 100% freelance and I like to share the everyday highs and lows of being a freelancer here on the blog.

  • I think work should become more project focussed and less job focussed. I can’t recall where but I’ve read in other places before about the power of galvanising people around a goal. Get the job done and disband/reshape the team for the next task. Increasingly my work relies on building small teams to help meet a client goal. And like everything – it doesn’t work for everyone, I do think it’s a great way to create value for yourself and others as an employee and/or a freelancer.

    I suggest people also read this excellent piece over at FlipChartFairyTales which offers up a counter point.

    http://www.flipchartfairytales.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/hierarchy-works/

    • kindredhq

      It makes sense to get people thinking about the end goal. The problem is that in so many companies they’ve lost sight of what everyone’s working towards. I read FlipChartFairyTales blog earlier, and I guess I’m somewhere in between. It’s a model, it’s new – and we do need some shaking up of the old hierarchies, but I agree that only time will tell whether there’s any merit in the Zappos/Holacracy model.

      • Colin Newlyn

        What is clear is that the rigidity so often seen in corporate hierachies, and entrenched by them, is increasingly under pressure. New models will emerge to enable a more flexible, gig-based approach to work, whilst retaining the benefits of a defined organisational structure of some sort. Roles and responsibilities will flex to meet the need of each project, with less regard for seniority and status. Job descriptions will die and be replaced by capability profiles and portfolios. And there will be a closer alignment between someone’s formal status and their ‘street cred’, IMHO.

        • Yep, I think you’re right Colin. And I like the language you’ve used too. Gig, street creed, nice 🙂

          • Colin Newlyn

            Thanks, Doug.
            It also occurred to me that there’s a difference between the formal hierachies and the informal networks that run alongside them and there always has been. Only now it’s getting harder to pretend the informal networks aren’t there because they are increasingly the means by which stuff happens. These new, more fluid heirachies are a closer reflection of the networks. So they offer more-informed pretending 😉

BACK